Sunday, August 20, 2006

Do you really believe in democracy?

I saw the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall today. Large, impressive, even imposing. Somewhat like the Lincoln Memorial, the building is at the top of a long set of stairs, and inside it is a single room with a large statue of Chiang Kai Shek seated with a look of benevolence and wisdom. Somewhat after the death of Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek seized control of China, under the Nationalist Party. When the Communist followers of Mao Ze Dong won victories against the Nationalists, Chiang Kai Shek and his group left for Taiwan and ruled there.

From the perspective of the Cold War, Chiang was "our guy" and Mao was "their (the Soviet's) guy". After all, Mao was Communist, right? And Chiang was for Democracy, right? right? Errr....

Behind the statue of Chiang Kai Shek are three slogans: "Ethics", "Democracy", "Science". The one in the middle, "Democracy", is made up of two characters: people-rule.

Now this was written in the ancient style, going right to left, as opposed to what people do today which is mostly left to right. So I got thrown off for a bit, and read it as: rule-people. Or Lord-of-the-people. Hovering over his head like a caption, to describe just who you're looking at. Which, come to think of it, was more characteristic of Chiang Kai Shek's rule. Prof. Bruce Herschenson at Pepperdine, with whom I disagree with politically more than anyone else I know, does have a fun quote that is probably accurate: "The best thing that can be said about Chiang Kai Shek was that he was not Mao Ze Dong".

Close by, there is a park dedicated to the 2/28 incident. The year was 1947. WWII was over, and Japan was forced to give Taiwan back to China (meaning Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists, though Mao's followers were in control of a sizeable chunk of China at the time). Immediately after the handover, the people of Taiwan were relieved to hear they would no longer be under the iron grip of Japan's war-making machine. But they did not expect China's rule to be harsh as well. Tempers simmered with each freedom lost, until a woman selling tobacco on the black market was harrassed then beaten by police on February 27, 1947. The result was an outburst of anger, and people took to the streets, marching through the main government square (much of which was off-limits). The Governor asked for troops from the mainland, which arrived on March 5 and slaughtered protestors, and hunting down the intellectuals who they saw as leaders of the movement. It is estimated that 30,000 people were massacred in this event.

Why, then, was Chiang Kai Shek seen as a force for democracy? In the Cold War era, the concept that the world was being divided ideologically between democracy and communism quickly faded, as it became clear that what was really happening was countries were being asked to ally themselves with either the US or the Soviets. It didn't matter if you were not a democracy--in fact, it was easier to make the quick decisions deemed necessary to rout the communists militarily if you weren't. Or so it was supposed.

In 1954, Guatemala, in its first democratic election, elects a socialist. The US sends in our military to overthrow the government, installing a military dictatorship that lasted until the 1990s. In 1973 we do the same to Chile, bringing into power the feared dictator Pinochet. All in the name of fighting communism.

It seems to me that if you really believe in democracy over a dictatorship, you would trust in it for any situation, no matter how dire. In fact, in good times, any system will work--when there's no threat, the system will hold; when there's plenty, everyone can have what they want. It is only in the face of threat that one's beliefs are really tested. Many dictators have said, "democracy is nice, but we don't have the luxury of that. Let us build up our country, stamp out the communists, solve the unemployment problem, etc., then we can have democracy". Which means they don't believe in democracy at all. Or at least they don't think it's effective at solving problems.

So Chiang Kai Shek did not believe in people-rule. He believed in rule-people.

In recent news, a judge ruled that President Bush cannot simply circumvent search and seizure rules in our constitution and provided by Congress, just because "the terrorists are not playing by the rules". As if the Bill of Rights is a fragile glass sculpture that can only be handled at genteel cocktail parties, but would never survive in the rough-and-tumble biker bar. If we believe in the efficacy of a nation ruled by the principles of natural rights, then we believe it can be effective against ANY alternative, no matter whether they pull their punches. And if our dear President doesn't believe that, he has given up on democracy altogether.

It's not the terrorists who "hate our freedoms". Their rhetoric gives no indication that they have any problem with what freedoms people halfway around the globe from them may or may not have. It's the current administration who "hates our freedoms". Because if it weren't for these darned search and seizure rules, we could finally win this war on terror. Or something.

It's been fashionable ever since WWII to say, whenever we're fighting, that we're fighting "for our freedoms". It's a line that worked in WWII, and it was actually somewhat plausible: if Nazi Germany takes over Europe, will they want to conquer us next? Then would we live under a dictatorship? But no conflict since has ever threatened to take over the US as a country (and it's not clear the Nazis would have either). And the line has gotten to be a bigger and bigger stretch each time. The current War on Terror might be about a lot of things, but "freedom" isn't one of them. To take the interpretation that is most charitable to the current administration, we're fighting for our safety.

Which is not a bad thing, per se. The terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and one more was supposed to hit something major, probably, and they killed thousands. They didn't take away our freedoms. They took away our lives. The War on Terror is supposed to stop this from happening again. In other words, it's not a fight for freedom, but for life.

But if we decide to throw away our notions of natural rights of individuals in the process, it must be that we have decided that this democracy experiment had a good run and all, but ultimately, in the Big People world, it just won't work.

I realize that in every war, we've thrown away some of our freedoms. Soon after we became The United States of America, we passed the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, giving the president power to lock up anyone who he thought was undermining national security. Public outcry of this probably influenced Thomas Jefferson being elected President in 1800. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeus Corpus. This gave him the ability to try people for sedition willy-nilly. During WWII we locked up Japanese Americans (even those living in Latin America) without trial. Martial law was declared in some places. During the Cold War we had federal agents investigating peaceful dissenters. And in the end, we got our freedoms back, right?

It's like someone learning to roller blade in a rink, and holds onto the side. Every now and then, he lets go and skates for a bit, but whenever the threat of falling comes, he grabs the side again. But each time the touch of the side is a bit less, and less frequently. Then we know we're making progress.

Well, I think we're ready to abandon the side.

Okay, let's see if that generates comments, this time!

I do have another point about the 2/28 memorial. The fact is that after a history of arresting opposition leaders, the people in Taiwan said, "enough", and demanded true democracy, eventually electing those opposition leaders into office. And they pushed to have 2/28 remembered, so that such a thing could never be tolerated again, building a memorial where many were murdered, right across the street from the presidential palace. So there is hope. From a region that knew only oppression from the Qing Chinese court, to oppression from the Japanese military dictatorship, to oppression from the KMT (as opposed to the oppression from the Maoists), they have found freedom. How? I'm not sure. I think the people just got fed up and demanded it. It does give me hope about other parts of the world, especially areas where there has never been democracy or respect for human rights.

More blogging in a bit.


At 3:59 PM, Anonymous lorie said...

very good stuff here, Kevin. Our thinking on Bush is pretty much the same. From my perspective, Bush doesn't care much for people-rule either--instead, he's into corporate-rule. Or maybe just more money for his kind of people. At this point I'm thinking he'll do more than any terrorist ever could to destory democracy and freedom. I'll probably get a visit from the Feds for this, but he is a diseaster for democracy. I have even been harboring the fear that come Jan 09, he will just flat refuse to vacate the White House. Cause, of course, we'll still be "at war" in Iraq and be starting in on Iran. Maybe Korea, too.

As for Mao and company, have you read the latest bio? _Mao_ quite a shocker for an old leftist like me. I recommend you give it a read.


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