20 August, 2009

Gothic democracies: when nihilism takes over

Sergio Abranches

When major parties are dominated by nihilists, party and leaders loose contact with real life. They’re like zombies haunting parliamentary culture. Through their actions, democracies may be corrupted, and public policy go astray.

Representation becomes a perverted ritual, where politicians act like vampires in the shadows of a system clogged by the impurities they spread over many of its channels. These outdated and alienated politicians become the characters of what I use to call “a gothic version of democracy.”

On an exemplary column today, Joe Klein talks about the hazardous consequences to public policy and citizens’ lives, when nihilism dominates the political attitudes of a major party. It is a humane and civilized article, taking a personal, and local, view – “one of those awful collisions between public policy and real life” - on a universal political issue.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, recommends Klein’s column, on Twitter, @jayrosen_nyu, saying that “when reality is the wedge issue, journalists have to take sides. Joe Klein has a column about this idea.” I do agree with Rosen. We’ve got to take sides. But, sometimes, all sides are no good to be taken. Then, we’ve got to take the side of civic society. Political journalism is about civic life.

Klein poses two questions, both critical to democracy’s prospects urbe et orbi, and to journalists, as civic actors.

“How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?”

These two questions can be transcribed to fit several political systems, where democracies are either a rogue system, or are being threatened by major parties taken by nihilists.

Today, the Ethics Committee of the Brazilian Senate has dismissed all charges of corruption, and abuse of power against the Senate speaker, Jose Sarney, an old oligarch, whose time in politics has long passed. But he clings to power to amass personal and family benefits. Committee vote was manipulated under directives from both the ruling party (PT) chairman, and from president Lula’s political envoys, who feared to lose his parliamentary majority, and support to the candidate he appointed to his succession.

In Afghanistan, the US is militarily engaged to support a government that makes authoritarian and chauvinistic concessions to the Taliban, US soldiers are fighting on the hills. Running for reelection, US supported Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, determined a blackout on foreign media on election day.

The law of marital rape provoked an international outcry, as well as women protests in Kabul. Intimidated by these reactions’ effect on his reelection bid, Hamid Karzai has suspended its enforcement and promised some liberalizing adjustments.

It is surreal: a portion of US youth is placed on harm’s way to see their foes being indulged by their allies, or the democracy they’re supposedly fighting for being jeopardized. These attitudes, and the need to concede to conservative supporters, have a paradoxical result: they may win the war against the Taliban, only to see the Taliban culture, and Taliban-style oppression of women to prevail. “We need a change in customs, and this is just on paper. What is being practiced every day, in Kabul even, is worse than the laws,” said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and vocal women’s rights advocate.

The government’s foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday, according to BBC News, that “all domestic and international media agencies are requested to refrain from broadcasting any incident of violence during the election process from 6 am to 8 p.m. on 20 August.” This blackout obviously favors the Taliban, threatening to use more violence to disrupt the poll. Washington expressed only “concern and displeasure about that policy”, and said to “believe that journalists should have the freedom of access.”

Democracy can be led astray by that sort of gothic characters, who use its own mechanisms to work against the ideals it was built to ensure.

Like Chávez, in Venezuela, who has manipulated the democratic institutions of his country to establish a one man authoritarian rule. Or, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s manipulated reelection to Iran’s presidency, its results enforced with extreme violence and through undemocratic ways.

In Brazil, the Presidents’ persistent alliances with parties that have long been dominated by nihilists, opportunists and predators of all sorts, have transformed both PT, the now ruling party, and PSDB, the major opposition party, into hostages of nihilism.

These political predators are not like wolves who hunt clean, kill and eat their preys. They’re like vampires, who end up by transforming their victims into one of their own kind.

That’s why I call them gothic democracies, populated by zombies, vampires, and werewolves, acting on the shadows, to sap democracy’s civic virtues.

The only antidote to this situation is a radical transformation of democracy, making it more participative, breaking up with one-to-many representation. Using the new digital technologies and social media to infuse new blood into the veins of this old Treasury. Representative democracy, as we have it today, uses nineteenth century technology. We’ve got to reinvigorate it with the tools and technologies that are shaping twenty-first century social life. It is the way to make it up to date, stronger and better. Revamp it, to let its dearest predicates to resurface.

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