Imposing Democracy?

This was written in response to a BBC News talk back item.

There are those who state that “we” should not “impose” democracy on others, and that they must be free to “choose” their own societal structures and governments. “We” ask, how do they do that if not through democratic exercises? How does a “society” choose to form itself? And, does the *current* generation have any say over that form, “imposed” by a former generation? Again, how do they express that, if not through democratic structures? I have a very, very difficult time understanding those who state that we should not “impose” democracy on others, and let them choose their own form of government. Yet if they are not democratic and cannot vote, they cannot choose. Hence, a paradox. Are we then accepting that other human beings, born just like us, can legimately be denied the right to choose who governs them, and how it is done? If we do not “impose” democracy on them, then are we acknowledging that their “right” to “choose” their form of government must be expressed not through voting but through periodic revolution, bloodshed and suffering? Through mobs wielding machetes, intent on “choosing” their own form of government? If the Iranian youth, denied the right to vote and control their leaders, decide to exercise their “right” to “choose” their form of government by seizing power and have a Roman-style beheading party to purge their former rulers, shall we celebrate that they “chose” their government without our having “imposed” democracy? Or will the ICC be busily in-session?

The BBC’s dialogue is in the context of President Bush’s speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003. It is so frustrating to see people respond to a call for democratic reforms in despotic states with criticism that we should not be meddling and imposing democracy on others. It is difficult for me as an American, but I suppose that there are people out there who truly believe that their fellow human beings deserve no right to choose who controls them. For that is what democracy means to me: the ability for an individual to have a substantative voice in deciding who controls their government and its influence on their live. The concept that a particular social structure or tradition should trump the individual right to control his/her own life and destiny is so alien as to be disgusting. Yet there are so many out there who see no wrong in that.

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