Monday, November 01, 2004

On the Misuse of 'Democracy'

One way to misuse a word with descriptive content is to drain it of such content and then use it to express pure approval/disapproval. ‘Democracy,’ ‘democratic,’ and ‘undemocratic’ provide good contemporary examples of this semantic mischief. Used correctly, these are words that have a descriptive component; but they are increasingly being employed in a purely prescriptive manner.

I’ll provide three examples in a moment. The phenomenon is similar, but also opposite, to what leftists do with ‘fascist.’ Used correctly, this word embodies a descriptive element. A fascist is an adherent of the political ideology of Benito Mussolini. To call Nazis ‘fascists’ is already a semantic stretch, albeit one with some justification. Suppressing these facts, leftists often employ the term in a purely proscriptive way. In their mouths, it is a portmanteau term of abuse.

One summer in Florence, Italy, I read this graffito: ‘Turismo e fascismo!’ Pure proscription, and pure stupidity. Compare the way ‘bummer’ was used in the 1960s. A bummer was originally a ‘bad trip,’ i.e., a negative experience with a psychedelic such as LSD-25 or mescaline. But then it came to be applied to anything one took to be bad, whether or not of the nature of an experience.

First example. The recall of California governor Gray Davis was described by some Democrat party operatives as ‘undemocratic.’ But what could be more democratic, more populist, trading Latin for Greek, than a recall of the governor by the people? If that wasn’t the vox populi, what would be? No doubt the recall effort was funded by wealthy individuals and organized by political operatives, and those who solicited signatures were paid to do so; but the citizens who affixed their signatures to the recall petition did so freely and were not paid. It was a clear case of a grass-roots uprising.

It would avail nothing to counterargue that the recall overturned a valid election. For that is simply the nature of a recall, a recall allowed by California state law. The whole purpose of a successful recall is to overturn the results of a valid election.

As a second example, I cite Bill O’Reilly’s remark a few months ago on The O’Reilly Factor that the Internet, being unregulated, is ‘undemocratic.’ O’Reilly was rightly bemoaning the fact that all manner of garbage is available on the Internet, and that many lack the critical faculties to sort the good from the bad. I take it that what O’Reilly wanted to say was that it is not good for the country that so much filth and junk be available to impressionable minds, especially in view of the abdication of authority on the part of parents, teachers, and clergy. But obviously an unregulated Internet, in which anyone can publish anything, is the opposite of undemocratic! Everyone has a voice and can make it heard worldwide. ‘Democratic’ carries the meaning of ‘egalitarian’ as in ‘one man, one vote.’ We can argue whether an unregulated Internet is good or bad, but to call it ‘undemocratic’ is an obvious misuse of the word. What would be undemocratic would be to restrict access to it, or to place constraints on what could be published.

My third example is from a Nevada politician. He said something like, "The voice of dissent is the voice of democracy." To say something as absurd as this one has to have evacuated the word ‘democracy’ of all descriptive content. Democracy implies majority rule. So the voice of dissent is practically the opposite of the voice of democracy. It is the voice of those who disagree with the majority. Where the majority rules, dissent enjoys no protection. The protection of dissent requires something anti-democratic like a constitution which enumerates specific rights, a constitution that is not itself up for democratic grabs. People should realize that the system we have in the USA is a republic which combines democratic and anti-democratic elements. Pure democracy would be a pure disaster. It would be like three wolves and a sheep taking a vote on what to have for dinner. A constituionally-based democratic republic would be more like three wolves and sheep taking a vote on what to have for dinner -- but with the proviso that none of the voters can end up on the dinner table, a proviso that is not itself dependent on the whims of hungry critters.

Two points, then. The first is that words have meanings that must be respected. To take a word with descriptive content and strip it of such content is an egregious affront to intellectual hygiene and can lead only to confusion. When people do this you should hit them upside the head with the logic stick. Confusion of thought aids and abets bad actions.

The second point is that democracy is not unqualifiedly good; it is but one element in a viable polity.