Democracies are not polite

Democracies thrive on discussion and the contest of ideas. However, we must reach a consensus that certain values are indispensable for us to live together and improve our societies. Español.

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
1 April 2019, 12.01am
Unitary protest against racism and fascism in Barcelona, Spain, March 23, 2019. Photo by: Paco Freire. SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

"The aim of education is knowledge, not of facts, but of values."

– William S. Burroughs

Midnight's Children is an intricate, entertaining, and mesmerising book. It is an understatement to say that it is a difficult one, as you will end up with more questions than answers, questioning your knowledge of history and human nature.

However, Salman Rushdie’s novel challenges your world view – a valuable exercise in our times – and addresses the relationship between reality and truth. Can the same fact mean different things to different people? Does democracy need truth?

Saleem Sinai was born “at the stroke of the midnight hour”, as Jawaharlal Nehru famously said in his "Tryst with Destiny" speech before the Indian Constituent Assembly. It was August 15th 1947 – the moment India and Pakistan became independent nations.

From the moment of his birth, his destiny is inseparably linked with that of India, yet he struggles to understand why his life is supposed to mean something. The promises made by politicians have not been kept, and lasting peace seems unlikely. Suspicious of his special powers, Saleem walks us through the war between India and Pakistan, the independence of Bangladesh and the Emergency under Indira Gandhi without trying to be objective. It is the story of his India, the one that he knew and experienced – what happened is less important than what he can persuade his readers to believe.

It takes some time for the reader to grasp the magnitude of Saleem’s undertaking. He is supposed to unite the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens – Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Unable to do so, he succeeds instead in illuminating how nations are artificial constructions, ideological concepts made of narratives and arguments.

Threading his way between nationhood and fanaticism, Saleem exposes nationalism as a myth that must be rethought if India is to become a better place for all its citizens to live.

Can the same fact mean different things to different people? Does democracy need truth?

Saleem is an unreliable narrator because the concept of nation itself is unreliable. He travels from one country to the other, from top to bottom, sometimes failing to perceive his role in the history of India, sometimes seeing all too well the impact of India in his life. As we reach the end of the book, it looks as if he has run out of time. The truth ends up catching up with him.

I am not trying to write here a book review, because Saleem’s mind is too difficult to understand – it is just possible to shed some light on. It is rather an excuse to remember readers that not unlike India and Pakistan, nationalism is making a comeback in Europe, endangering our future.

If nations and communities are artificial constructs, and if the values that sustain them are arguable – in the sense that they are the product of an argument -, we must be willing to defend liberal democracy; this is a debate that we cannot afford to lose.

Uprooting facts

As the forthcoming European elections loom close, constituencies ought to be debating how to address climate change, the increasing inequality in our societies and the dangers of unregulated capitalism. We should be discussing the threat that some global actors represent to our way of life and addressing the spread of would-be autocrats within our borders.

At the very least, we should be informing our citizens about what the European Union does for them, and remind them that it was through cooperation and multilateralism that we finally achieved peace in a once war-ravaged continent.

Our inability to bring up these issues for discussion contrasts with the nationalists’ and populists’ ability to convince European citizens that migrants are invading Europe. They stand for people like them and not people like you – whatever that means. They want more of their religion, more of their language, more of their ideas. They want less diversity, less freedom of expression and less debate. Their plan for Europe is a weaker Europe – a haven for a myriad of nation-states to pursue their ambitions over everyone and everything.

Endangering rights, bullying the media and extraditing migrants will not make Italy a better country. Waging a crusade against liberal democracy and academic freedom in Hungary will not bring about a more prosperous society.

However, distinguishing between propaganda and reality is becoming more and more difficult. It requires engaging with the present moment while being aware of our social context and shared history. It would be naive to assume that most citizens will be able to navigate the waters of public opinion while those in power are busy trying to manipulate it.

Distinguishing between propaganda and reality is becoming more and more difficult. It requires engaging with the present moment while being aware of our social context and shared history.

Politics might be a mechanism for making the best of an imperfect world. Unfortunately, it is also useful for manufacturing grievances and weaponizing the truth, for providing politicians with the tools to lead citizens away from rational debate and into the field of emotions.

But the problem we are faced with goes beyond political parties. Populist agendas can also make inroads into academic institutions, uprooting history and using it as yet another weapon of mass disinformation.

Just an example: in Spain, nationalism permeated the Royal Academy of History, as the right-wing newspaper ABC and conservative parties accused the Spanish government of weakness for having agreed on a shared celebration with Portugal to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Upon request from the newspaper, the Royal Academy of History issued an opinion on the matter claiming that the 16th century was wholly and exclusively a Spanish enterprise. The statement quite obviously fails to recognise the importance of Ferdinand Magellan’s achievements, before and during the voyage, omits the multicultural composition of the crew – which included Italian explorer and scholar Antonio Pigafetta -, and sailors from across Europe.

The opinion is relevant because it is unequivocal that the first circumnavigation of the globe was not "wholly and exclusively” a Spanish enterprise. The achievement was possible due to the expertise of different people from different countries, which today happen to be close partners and share a common – yet controversial past. Labelling a Socialist government as weak because it recognises the achievement of others is appalling and sends a clear message: if we remain idle, the forthcoming elections will not be about what Europeans want, but about what some politicians lack.

Truth matters

Quantifiable success alone will not save the European Union. We need to rebuild our relationship with citizens, abridging the gap created by our failures and the campaigns designed to exploit them. There is no ideal social organisation or a typical political regime. We are well aware of this. The financial crisis, austerity measures and the refugee crisis have laid bare the incongruities in our democracies as well as in Brussels.

Like Saleem Sinai, our destiny is tied to the future of those around us. We need a new vision that acknowledges the importance of our shared values and our duty to act against those who endanger them.

However, it is important to remind our citizens of the role that the European Union has played in securing peace and improving our living conditions by finding means based on international cooperation and dialogue. If we are to prevent the worst from happening, we must find rational solutions to the real problems affecting our constituencies, such as inequality and the loss of social status.

Populist leaders across the continent expect us to do nothing about it. They believe that citizens are lazy and unwilling to make the effort to understand what the real issues are, and that they can skilfully manipulate our emotional needs for community and identity. They have nothing to offer but fear, resentment and hate.

European citizens must know that a change for the better cannot come from exclusionary politics and isolation. They should be aware of the implications of jumping ship without a life-jacket, and of the cost of pursuing abstract conceptions of freedom and sovereignty.

In the United Kingdom, once it became clear that politicians had been lying to the people on the road to the Brexit referendum, a group of friends decided to expose these politician’s lies and hypocrisy over leaving the EU using billboard posters.

The point was not to say that Brexit is a terrible thing and that those who supported it are wrong, but to make politicians accountable. Having lives, families and everyday problems like everyone else did not stop them from doing something about the future of their country.

Truth matters in democracy. No one gets to pinpoint what the truth is, yet there must be an agreement on who we are, what we do and the things that are so. Democracies are not polite – they do thrive on discussion and the contest of ideas. But we need a loose consensus to the effect that certain values are essential for us if we are to live together, and that they cannot be abandoned.

Unlike Saleem Sinai, most of us lack superpowers. Like Saleem Sinai, our destiny is tied to the future of those around us. We need a new vision that acknowledges the importance of our shared values and our duty to act against those who endanger them.

If we take human rights and freedom for granted, if we take a step back from public life and allow populists to decide what is important, they will smash our continent against the rocks.

The truth will end up catching up with us then.

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