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That Imperfect Aspiration We Call Democracy

From Rio to Cairo, from Snowden to Erdogan, the excess and limits of the popular will.

June 2013 protests in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
June 2013 protests in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Richard Herzinger


BERLIN - Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Edward Snowden, who many in the West are hailing as a hero of freedom because he blew the whistle on the U.S. secret surveillance program PRISM, found that he had eager friends in China and Russia. He made it possible for the autocratic regimes in those countries to point the finger triumphantly at the West’s largest democracy and denounce Western ideals of freedom and human rights as a hypocritical facade.

But of course they are the real hypocrites. These are countries where anybody who doesn’t toe the line like the rest of the well-trained population (and we’re not even talking about what they do to “traitors”) is shoved into labor camps and prisons. Their attempt to turn Snowden into a shining beacon of human rights is as wrong-headed as the behavior of Ecuador’s president, who apparently intends to offer the whistleblower asylum.

Of course, Rafael Correa’s government is in the process of passing a new media law that would bring swift death to freedom of the press. This is happening in other Latin American countries as well, where, as in Venezuela, leftist governments decrying "capitalist media" are in the process of placing a stranglehold on free speech.

But those are not the only countries where democracy is encountering turbulence. The hopeful revolutions in the Arab world have turned into bloody chaos and new repression.

Egypt particularly, under the regime of Islamist Mohammed Morsi, is in acute danger of becoming a failed state. And Turkey, which was so long considered a model for how political Islam and modern democracy could work hand in hand, is changing into a kind of sultanate under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic leadership.

Amid all this, the discrediting of American (and British) democracy by Snowden’s revelations sends a fatal signal. It plays right into the hands of leaders who’ve always claimed democracy can’t work, or, worse still, that their authoritarian totalitarianism is the only true form of "effective" democracy.

The warning signs of a crisis of legitimacy for democracy hit Europe some time ago. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government is undermining the rule of law, and in the euro-crisis countries of southern Europe trust in democratic institutions has been jeopardized. Has a worldwide anti-democratic rollback started?

Burning wish

Democracy really is a simple thing — just not easy to realize. Over and over again, people all over the world who throw themselves heart and soul into revolts for freedom learn the hard way that the burning wish for democratic self-determination is by no means enough to ensure lasting democracy. Democracy rests on the existence of independent and non-partisan institutions and, finally, on the will of wise democrats who respect the inviolability of these institutions.

When the checks and balances of democratic pluralism are not in place, tightly organized power groups and loud-mouth demagogues use the confusion in times of change to force society into their uncontrolled structures of domination. Democracy requires patient courage and time — often even too much of these qualities to avoid painful setbacks on the way to achieving it.

But even as disappointment and the frustration of impatient expectation with democracy grow in many places around the world, its attraction remains unbroken. In fact, we are presently witnessing the largest mobilization of civil societies since the transitions of 1989-90 as the Iron Curtain fell.

In Turkey, a confident secular middle class is showing that it is not prepared to be incapacitated in the name of a reactionary interpretation of Islam. In Egypt, large numbers of the country’s population are mass-demonstrating against Islamization by the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. And in Indonesia, there has been massive outcry not only against unfair increases in the price of gas but against religious intolerance.

The spirit of democracy has overtaken whole societies outside the Muslim world as well. In countries as different as Brazil and Bulgaria people are standing up to the corruption and mismanagement of their governments.

In these cases, the revolt is taking place to protect already existing democratic structures from deformation. Yet as different as the causes and goals of the revolts are, they send a common message: however imperfect democracy still is and may be in future, it is the only remedy against its own afflictions.

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Image of a group of police officers, in uniform, on their motorbikes in the street.

Police officers from the Memphis Police Department, in Memphis, USA.

Ian T. Adams and Seth W. Stoughton

The officers charged in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols were not your everyday uniformed patrol officers.

Rather, they were part of an elite squad: Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION team. A rather tortured acronym for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods,” SCORPION is a crime suppression unit – that is, officers detailed specifically to prevent, detect and interrupt violent crime by proactively using stops, frisks, searches and arrests. Such specialized units are common in forces across the U.S. and tend to rely on aggressive policing tactics.

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