Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cultural determinism

Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, has an essay in Opinion Journal arguing against cultural determinism, especially with regard to democracy. He opposes the notion that, because a country is not a democracy now, and has a history that lacks the democratic sheen, it cannot be a democracy. I certainly hope he is right. If not, a lot of blood and money will have soaked into Iraqi sands for no good purpose.

He also argues against the allegedly "Western" nature of democracy and its source in Ancient Greece. Redefining democracy by quoting JS Mill's "government by discussion", he claims that this has existed all over the world at different times and that it is therefore absurd for the West to claim any ownership. His examples are Nelson Mandela's childhood memories of meetings in his home town; Ghandi in India;

Saladin, who fought valiantly for Islam in the Crusades in the 12th century, could offer, without any contradiction, an honored place in his Egyptian royal court to Maimonides; the Great Mughal emperor Akbar (who was born a Muslim and died a Muslim) had just finished, in Agra, his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all; ... the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest Iran 2,000 years ago.
[What contradiction should there be between fighting the Crusades and welcoming a Jew?] I will admit immediately that I have never heard of democracy in Susa and Shushan 2,000 years ago. However, I really don't see much of a case here. Apart from the number of cases of democracy in Europe, there is another point. It is the consciousness of what you do, the way you explain it to the world. The importance of the Greeks was their awareness that they were doing something exceptional (they said so - the contrast between West and East comes from them) and the evident fruits, intellectual, economic and military, of what they were doing. That example and their words never died. So with the addition of the Christian notion that all men and women were equal before God, the two Pillars of Democracy were erected. Theory and fact would one day come together, even if slowly.

The 'discussion' is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for democracy. It has to be theorised and institutionalised. No doubt most cultures have somewhere in their pasts the intellectual tools for this, but bringing them together is another thing. This the West has done. Others haven't. Mandela's South Africa is a western country. India owes its democracy not to Ghandi, but to the British.

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