Saturday, November 2, 2013

#306 / Profoundly Disagree

Readers of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, among whom I number myself, are periodically furnished with an opportunity to read the thoughts of Laina Farhat-Holzman, whose website describes her as follows: "Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a writer and historian who formerly taught World History and Islamic Civilization at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, where she was also Executive Director of the San Francisco United Nations Association and was a frequent speaker for the World Affairs Council and the Commonwealth Club. She has been a more than a three decade observer of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and has been charting the growth of fanatical radicalized Islam around the world."

In her column appearing in the Sentinel on October 19, 2013, Dr. Farhat-Holzman talks about "democracy," which she defines as "rule by the people." She seems to suggest that there is some sort of significant difference between a "direct" democracy (as existed, supposedly, in ancient Athens) and the "republic" we have today in the United States, since our democracy operates on representative principles. Personally, I don't see the distinction as being fundamental, since it seems to me that if democracy truly means "rule by the people," any sort of system, direct or representative, should qualify, if the people themselves are actually in charge of structuring and operating the government.

That point aside, the October 19th column was given the following headline in the Sentinel: "A democratic republic has strings attached." Farhat-Holzman outlines her thought about those "strings" as follows: 

One essential element of a successful Republic is rule of law. We all know that. But less understood is the other essential element: a common culture. Failure to recognize the importance of this commonality is damaging our own republic today ...

With this assertion I must profoundly disagree. The "greatness" of the democratic system established in our Constitution is precisely that it sets up a civil government that operates within a "political" sphere,  a sphere in which democratically-enacted "laws" state the rules. Ours is, indeed, a government that operates by means of a "rule of "law," and not one with any commitment to "culture" whatsoever. The very first words in the First Amendment should make this clear: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... 

Whether the word "culture" or "religion" is used, the meaning is the same. And the American system rejects the idea that "culture" and "religion" are subjects for democratic decision.

If there is hope for our world now, in what is indisputably a "global" society, that hope comes from the possibility that we will be able, ultimately, to agree that "culture," and "religion," shall not be legislated, and that "culture" is not subject to the democratic rule of the majority. 

Our commitment to diversity, present from the very beginning of the Republic, is a unique gift to the world. I am sorry to see Dr. Farhat-Holzman depreciate it. 

Image Credit:

1 comment:

  1. There is most distinctly a difference between democracy and a representative republic. The United States government has never been a democracy, i.e., rule by the people. In fact, the framers of the Constitution guarded vociferously against a democracy, expressing fear of the “rabble,” the unwashed masses that would take the reins of power from the propertied classes, who were viewed as the only citizens capable of decision-making. The structure of government set forth in the Constitution specifically rules out democracy, setting up a system dominated by elite property interests. This is one of the main reasons ratification of the Constitution took from September 28, 1787 until May 29 1790, and then passed only by a tiny margin.

    Our government has become even less democracy-like over time. “The people themselves” are not in charge of structuring and operating the present government. Rather than a representative republic, we now suffer a corporate plutocracy, a combination of a representative republic held in thrall to economic interests that control the outcome of elections through massive campaign contributions. (Local elections are less influenced by economic interests, for the most part.)

    Dr. Farhat-Holzman is correct in her assessment of the effect of a lack of common culture in the failure of democratic institutions. In the 18th Century, all members of the Colonies shared a common culture, that of England. That is no longer the case. We are now a country, or countries, of many vastly different cultures. Those cultures are assiduously maintained and defended, geographically and socially. Even in Santa Cruz County, we have a large population that doesn’t speak English, that maintains and celebrates a different culture, and that is less engaged in the process of government than the general, largely apathetic mainstream culture.

    It’s not that government makes decisions about culture or religion, it’s that the differing cultures in the United States have different ideas about participation in government, about their place in the greater society and their vision of what their world should look like and how it should function.

    There is no “global society,” as there is no single “United States society.” Just as at the international level, our national, state and local governments are increasingly challenged by disparate and sometimes incompatible cultural views on how government should function, how laws should be written and enforced, and how citizens should take part in the process of government.

    “Rule by the majority,” measured by economic or demographic indicators, results in disenfranchisement of the minority. How do we reconcile this reality with the ideal of Democracy: Rule by the People?


Thanks for your comment!