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Democracy: out in the cold?

Realised dreams often turn into nightmares.
Lera Auerbach

What's a joy to the one is a nightmare to the other.
Bertolt Brecht

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
H.L. Mencken

Demos: whole citizens living within a city-state.
Kratos: power to rule; derived from Kratos, the personification of authority.

Words matter. Yet for all their sheer presence they are gateways to something far greater: worlds of associations, of meanings, pressed into the service of identity. In terms of cognitive clusters we find a broad hierarchy. The identity forms the core of an individual's disposition, then come the conceptualisations of incoming data, followed by the associations between the concepts created within the person's mind. Identifying those dynamics allows the concept of democracy to be analysed away from any personal inclinations.

From the Museum of Australian Democracy comes the following definition:

•  A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;
•  A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;
•  A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;
•  A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).

Compare the ancient Greek version with its modern counterpart. Back then the power to rule was conferred upon a strictly defined type of individual. Power was not for everyone, and it was power. Never mind any assumptions - a person was either suitable to partake in government, or he was not (there was no 'she' to begin with).

Today, in the West citizens are seen as individuals, and in order to fit the equation there is the 'belief' all those individuals are moral and rational. Immoral and irrational people are rather not associated with governance, since such types do not sit comfortably with the noble identity a nation would seek for itself.

Further, there is the belief in reason and progress, a natural condition achieved through compromise when decisions have to be made one way or another. That compromise is taken to be consensual, since cooperation is preferred over conflict. Diminish the aspect of 'consensual' and there is the suspicion that power has become concentrated at varying scales, from the individual to government.

Such are the words. How they translate into practice is a function of the ever widening hierarchical circles mentioned before.

Moral and rational

Identity rules. India may be a democracy, but that hasn't stopped authorities in Karnataka banning the hijab in schools [1]. On the other hand, India may be a democracy, but that hasn't stopped Muslims from placing their religion above being a citizen of India. Whatever Islam may hold for the believers, the religion is part of their identity since infants are formed into adults by their cultural and social environments during a period when more critical thinking is absent. A quote from the article is telling: "stop the marginalisation of Muslim women". If a minority of citizens is not made visible as a minority, then this is seen as marginalisation.

protests in India
Identity: protests in India [1].

How justifiable is the belief that every citizen, or at least most citizens, are moral and rational? If a democratic system is meant to work the majority of its population needs to be capable of making decisions that are in accordance with reality; if not, the system is bound to flounder sooner or later. Should the system be such that most citizens cannot help but be moral and rational the word 'belief' makes sense; otherwise, 'wish' would be more appropriate. Note also that to be moral does not necessarily mean one is rational. Witch burners were anything but rational, but they were certainly moral. At those trials the prosecutors always assured themselves and others just how moral they were.

At the time of writing the world is challenged by the potentially deadly Covid-19 virus, and scientists have risen to the challenge by developing vaccines which afford a considerable protection against it. Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the average vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation to be 85.5% [2]. Similar results are obtained elsewhere. Then we have the history of serious diseases such as measles (one of many), rendered virtually trivial through vaccination [3]. Despite such evidence (quite apart from personal experiences that surely must have had some chance of percolating through society) there exists a demographic which doesn't 'believe' (that word again) in getting vaccinated and even takes to the streets in order to demonstrate the point. As Dr David Green, head of emergency at the Gold Coast University Hospital says, "It's incredibly sad that you've got all this research out there, creating a lifesaving vaccine that they refuse to use and it's free and available. You know, I just don't get that bit." [4]

protests in Australia
Identity: protests in Australia [5].

And how exactly would a majority belief in burning witches for example be counteracted by the country's leaders? One could laugh it off as ridiculous, but what exactly are the protections? Follow the principles of democracy and we have madness, simply ban such things and we have an example of authoritarianism.

Reason and progress

If being moral and rational cannot always be reconciled with each other, then surely progress relies on reason and vice versa.

The electric motor could not have been envisaged let alone developed until the concept of electricity had been understood. Electric fish in ancient Egypt were "thunderers of the Nile" [6], but it took a more realistic view that placed electromagnetism into a useful context which opened the way onwards. And so today we have something like electric trains. Except that not everyone shares that same space.

When the light rail network connecting districts of the Gold Coast to the Coolangatta airport in Queensland progressed to the stage where Burleigh Heads was about to be included, Aboriginal elders from the Kombumerri Ngarang-Wal Saltwater people in that area launched a native title claim because that headland is "like our Vatican" and their god Jabreen has been asleep there for thousands of years [7] (to place the concept of 'Vatican' with its Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo and above all, Renaissance, in proper relationship with Australia's indigenous people, see The naked culture [8] with its numerous references). So here is Mayor Tom Tate, with a $600m final stage ready for completion, and a 50,000-year-old superstition presents an obstacle; an ancient belief coming from a natural condition that does not represent progress nor reason.

While these kind of hindrances are by no means unique, it should not be assumed Australia is in the grip of a hunter-gatherer culture. Then again, "top academic" Dr Melitta Hogarth (pictured in the article and described as an indigenous woman), called for the subject of English to be renamed because the name is an "act of assimilation" [9]. Drawing a connection between the perpetrators of violence against Aboriginal people and the former's language, by the same logic we should ban 'Cockney' because some of its speakers had a background spurned by polite society [10].

A more direct challenge to democratic ideals has come from the recent fire in Canberra's Old Parliament House, as indigenous protesters made themselves known as "sovereign citizens" [11]. Note the symbolism: in their desire to have a voice democracy is cancelled out altogether.

fire at Old Parliament House Canberra
Identity: setting fire to Old Parliament House in Canberra [11].

Calling on reason and progress to guide the nation through the years is all well and good, but it does require a general consensus about what those sentiments mean. In a democracy, with its inherent diversity, the meaning can only ever be constructed out of an individual's understanding of it all. Under such auspices education, designed to influence the over-arching identity, cannot always be relied upon to deliver the hoped-for agreement if that process itself is rendered questionable by differing priorities.


There is this view of intelligent, educated yet still curious individuals coming together to debate any issue under the sun; to argue a point until the small hours of the morning; and going home having discovered mutually agreeable angles (well, at least until the next evening). An atmosphere described so vividly in Prague during the 1930s, where "theatres were full" and "Praguers argued about politics and art in the city's famous cafés" [12]. Sadly, history didn't stop there. Within a few years a culture that gave us Bauhaus, Freud, Dalí, Jung and Kafka was overwritten by dictatorial regimes that saw anything and anyone outside their presumptions as the enemy.

The phrasing by the Museum of Australian Democracy, "...based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict" is noteworthy. As an idea it seems desirable enough until we get to the practical side, its implementation. One can have 'walls painted green', but one would hardly order green paint unless there are the walls; walls come first. Same here: to organise a democratic framework of government by looking to 'order' first and 'cooperation' second can easily be different from ensuring cooperation first and then expecting order as a result. It depends on who is doing the organising. "You want order and cooperation? Very well, I'll ensure cooperation and then you'll have order". That's what conceptualisations can do.

To be sure, Australia has escaped much of the dictatorial initiatives that have occurred elsewhere over the decades, although in political circles the debates were often, shall we say, robust. Witness just about any of the parliamentary debates and the initial argumentative aspect of a law finally being proclaimed becomes obvious. It went through the ranks. In 1992, when opposition leader John Hewson asked the prime minister, Paul Keating (Labor Party), why he wouldn't call an early election if he was so confident, Keating replied, "...because I want to do you slowly" [13]. Still, for all the insults flying through the chambers there was no fighting in the streets as happens in so many other countries.

Then again, it depends on what is associated with a parliamentary outcome.

When the corona virus made itself felt across the world nations responded, first out of fear of the unknown, then pointing to the limits of their respective infrastructure such as the capacity of their hospitals. The measures were about restrictions. Restricting one's personal behaviour (mask-wearing, curfews), people's movements (preventing border crossings between states in Australia, between nations), and all the while capturing the names and locations of citizens in databases. As more and more about the virus became known, politicians referenced themselves to 'medical advice' as they instituted one impediment after another. Then, as the benefits of vaccinations became clear, mandates were issued to allow the vaccinated certain freedoms but not giving them to others. The responses were predictable: demonstrations around the world.

Anti-mandate protests in Australia  Anti-mandate protests in France  Anti-mandate protests in Germany

Anti-mandate protests in Italy

  Anti-mandate protests: Australia [14], France [15], Germany [15],
  Italy [15].

In Canada a convoy of trucks blocked major roads in Ottawa, eventually creating a problem for the entire economy as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products had been stalled at the US border [16].

Anti-mandate protests in Canada
Anti-mandate protests: Canada [17].

All those demonstrations occurred in democracies that by definition imbued their citizens with a feeling of personal liberty and freedom from government interference. Thus we have the identity projecting into the data (new laws imposed by the government), to form associations that create the perception of loss of freedom (the mandates). Politicians may point to the medical reasons, but such criteria are not necessarily part of everyone's associative process, especially when the majority does not relate to being in intensive care in a hospital.

Returning to the situation in Australia, the prohibition about border crossings from one state into another is addressed in the country's constitution. There, we have "Trade within the Commonwealth to be free" (section 92, page 23), "Parliament may forbid preferences by State" (s. 102, p. 25), "Inconsistency of laws" (s. 109, p. 26), and "Rights of residents in States" (s. 117, p. 27), the last referring to citizens being subject to one law in one state while not being subject to that law were they residents in another state. Of particular interest is section 101:

There shall be an Inter-State Commission, with such powers of adjudication and administration as the Parliament deems necessary for the execution and maintenance, within the Commonwealth, of the provisions of this Constitution relating to trade and commerce, and of all laws made thereunder. (p. 27)

It is noteworthy that during all those months of restrictions regarding border crossings and how this affected people in their daily lives, never once was that section 101 referred to in the general press (at least to my knowledge, and I went through copious reports of that nature). If all these demonstrators did not fill the streets with a copy of the Constitution in hand, it does seem the associations within politicians' minds were first and foremost concerned with imposing restrictive laws and not so much with the juridical framework of democracy within which such laws are meant to be situated.

Perhaps the law makers feel secure in the knowledge that acting as representatives in a democracy would ipso facto prevent them from stepping over the line towards a dictatorship. Yet Australia also prides itself of being a refuge for millions of people escaping from dictatorships. Someone coming from say, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland, would be highly sensitive towards anything hinting at a sign of authoritarianism with its secret police, interrogations and torture. They would also know that no dictatorship started with its full-blown characteristics in place; rather, there was the promise of decisive action in the face of danger, the need for strong leadership, the rallying of the nation. And, with that kind of framework in place, the noose could tighten bit-by-bit.

No wonder there is suspicion.

Power sharing

Motherhood statements abound, especially in politics. 'Power sharing' is one of them. A platitude reduced to a one-second buzzword and so ending up as a banality.

Focusing on the issue rather than the person in a debate is all very well, although in politics it is not the idea which has been voted in but the person. It is that person who will manage a law amongst the daily contingencies and who oversees its practical side; the concept has become personal after all. Thus a law comes into effect through the actions of the representative, and who or what contributed to such an action may or may not be visible to the electorate. The newspapers can report on the debates in parliament, less so when it comes to the preparations behind the scenes.

Over the years the influence of political lobbyists has grown steadily. So much so that in 2020 the then head of the Crime and Corruption Commission Alan MacSporran announced he has lobbyists in his sights [18]. In the article two lobbyists in particular were identified who worked on the Labor government's election campaign strategy, and one of them even operated out of the government's headquarters in Brisbane.

At first glance it seems that the presence of an individual addressing a politician in person is precisely what democracy is all about: a citizen walking up to a member of parliament and voicing their concern. When it comes to the status of lobbyists however, you and I are not in the same league. For one thing, most of them come from the ranks of politicians (see the Courier Mail article referenced in the previous paragraph), meaning they have insider knowledge and connections the rest of the population can only dream about. They also get paid for doing their job, and market forces ensure nice big remunerations take priority over the few dollars coming from a pensioner. It then becomes a question of who can afford it.

One could argue that a large corporation has more need of configuring its general environment than an individual. The larger such an entity, the more the benefits from the spill-over effect will make it better for all of us. A company so large that it relies on the quality of the general infrastructure, having better roads and trains, a better energy supply, a better health care system for its workers, surely all such things also matter to everybody. As US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1953 when asked whether he would make a decision that was bad for General Motors, "What's good for GM is good for America" [19]. So General Motors has the president's ear; then what about Ford, or Chrysler? Or Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes for that matter - here the associations between one company and another, between an American company and another, between a car manufacturer and other factories, will make themselves felt.

If the concept of universality is followed through logically, it shouldn't matter where the advice comes from. They all are equally valid and therefore a politician would not have the need for lobbyists at all but can simply rely on an objective assessment of the state of infrastructure. But politicians are not necessarily architects, or transport experts, or demographers. The act of lobbying can then be seen as a kind of outsourcing, except that the checks and balances so celebrated in a democracy are now absent.

Moreover, since the 1950s the demographic and/or political dynamics have changed considerably. The traditional lobbyists still exist, but now we also have social media and their cohorts sharing the tropes with their own ebb and flow. The themes not only distinguish themselves in terms of content, they are also parcelled by age groups and their own respective associations. As Joerg Henrichs, Gifted Teenagers Coordinator for Australian Mensa, has pointed out, reaching teenagers is not only about the 'what' but the 'where' since his teenage daughter has let him know that "only old people use Facebook" [20].

Within the groups the associative properties of age, fashion, topic (usually in that order) answer to the contextual hierarchy alluded to before. There may not be a direct contact between social media users and politicians, but the influence is there nevertheless. Furthermore, the more successful the content in hitting its target, the more tenuous its relationship with the truth. In his article "Why we still fall for influencers, salesmen and politicians who lie" Bahador Bahrami describes an experiment in which exaggeration and lies increase the chances of being heard [21]. He cites the example of the Brexit campaign in the UK, where Boris Johnson used a strategy of disadvantage in order to swing the voters around to his leave position. Poignantly, "...the regions most strongly favouring Leave were also ... the most dependent on European Union markets for their local development".

Power is certainly shared, but by whom?

And so...

Today the tides of perception, derived from one's identity, then conceptualisations, then arriving at the associations between them all, are driven by moment-to-moment triggers situated within the confluence of an entire society. The identity is formed from birth onwards, and at any time the ongoing processes are subject to the dynamics of human activity systems on the global scale. How it all starts is just as important as what the individual makes of their environment throughout the years.

It matters how one grows up. Whether a child is encased by protective devices clamped on by helicopter parents, or whether youngsters are 'out there' having to deal with a situation on their own terms and thereby build their resilience.

protective gear for kids
Oh so safe: kids in isolation (the parental, not the medical kind) [22].

There are situations where a certain amount of restraint is advisable, and it certainly applies to children. Too much of restraint however causes its own problems. Restraints imply control and hence discipline. Those working with animals have known this all along; even a wild animal can be handled more easily if its movements are controlled from an early age onwards. In humans too many controls also impose the acceptance of a certain loss of freedom because the latter becomes almost natural. Growing up under such conditions does not prepare the individual for the unforeseen and the problematic - events which are bound to happen sooner or later.

By the time they are adults, whatever may happen is translated against the background of insufficient resilience and lack of self-esteem. The situation has been noted. Deakin University adjunct professor and counselling psychologist Helen McGrath calls on parents to be less indulgent [23]. It should come as no surprise that mental health issues in children and adults have risen to such prominence.

According to the Australian Government's Department of Health almost half of adults will face mental health issues during their lives; the main cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 49 years was suicide [24]. It is also the leading cause of death for those aged 15-24 [25] (quite apart from so many other personal issues that lead to less final outcomes). When it comes to the proportion of deaths the trend over the years is especially dramatic:

suicide rates for young people
Deaths by suicide among young people [25].

Here we have a steadily increasing number of citizens whose identity is so compromised, they choose to end their lives; a group that by definition should be the most embracing of life and all that it can hold. As in any associative process, what is being processed is done within a set of priorities that has defined itself from the centre outwards.

The challenges posed by the very framework of democracy when it comes to applying one's reason to progress, to compromise, to cooperation, and all that within the context of its political dynamics which can be trying in themselves, these are met by individuals who already have considerable problems to start with. A mindset which feeds on the viscous flux of transient exhortations to assuage its own unstable self. Within that kind of space any ideals about nation and governance are neither here nor there, and steadfastly turning one's back on the streams under the surface will only work so far.

Just remember: the democratic West is not the only inhabitant of this competitive planet. We are being watched.

Considering events past and present, discerning readers might be inclined to think of examples where developments should or could have been arrested yet where inaction made the problem steadily worse.

There is a metaphor which I feel captures the situation rather well:

Suppose you are on a train that's stationary on an incline. Suddenly the brakes give way and the train starts moving. If you jump off at that moment you might get a few scratches, but otherwise you'll be safe. On the other hand, the longer you hesitate the more dangerous it will be, but the more urgent the situation becomes as well. Until there comes a point when it doesn't matter whether you jump or not, you'll get killed anyway.

So, what do you do - jump straight away, after a while, or wait for the end?

Related articles:

What kills a culture
Demographic orientations
The 10 axioms of Society


1. R De Chowdhuri, Indian students block roads as row over hijab in schools mounts, Reuters, 10 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/india/indian-students-block-roads-row-over-hijab-schools-mounts-2022-02-09/, accessed 13 February 2022.

2. COVID-19 Vaccine Effectiveness, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccine-effectiveness, 27 January 2022, accessed 13 February 2022.

3. K F Kiple (ed.), Plague, Pox & Pestilence, Phoenix Illustrated, London, 1999.

4. L Scott, My patients in ICU regretted dodging the jab, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 12 February 2022.

5. M Davis, Thousands of anti-vax protesters take to the streets across Melbourne to rally against restrictions, Daily Mail Australia, 8 January 2022, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10381089/Anti-vax-protesters-streets-Melbourne-rally-against-Covid-19-restrictions.html, accessed 15 February 2022.

6. Electricity, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity, accessed 15 February 2022.

7. P Gleeson, Tough task for Tom to get light rail finished, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 18 October 2021.

8. M Wurzinger, The naked culture, otoom.net/thenakedculture.htm.

9. S Bennett, Scrap English from schools: academic, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 14 August 2021.

10. Australia: Protesters set Old Parliament House in Canberra on fire, BBC News, 30 December 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-59824914, accessed 20 February 2022.

11. F Grose, The Vulgar Tongue - Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence, Bantam Books, Sydney, 2004.

12. R Fidler, The Golden Maze - A Biography of Prague, HarperCollinsPublishers, Australia, 2020, p. 277.

13. M MacCallum, Political Anecdotes, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2003, p. 264.

14. D Wu, Mark McGowan tells demonstrators the vaccine mandate is in place to 'save lives' as WA records 68 new COVID-19 cases, Sky News, 13 February 2022, https://www.skynews.com.au/australia-news/coronavirus/mark-mcgowan-tells-demonstrators-the-vaccine-mandate, accessed 16 February 2022.

15. Anti-vaccine protesters rally in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Aljazeera, 9 January 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/9/more-than-100000-rally-in-france-against-covid-vaccine-rules, accessed 16 February 2022.

16. J P Tasker, Anti-vaccine mandate protests spread across the country, crippling Canada-U.S. trade, CBC, 9 February 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/anti-mandate-protests-cripple-canada-us-trade-1.6345414, accessed 16 February 2022.

17. I Austen, V Isai, Canadian Trucker Convoy Descends on Ottawa to Protest Vaccine Mandates, The New York Times, 29 January 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/29/world/americas/canada-trucker-protest.html, accessed 16 February 2022.

18. D Cameron, Watchdog's teeth bared at lobbyists, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 15 December 2020.

19. G Mukunda, 'What's Good For GM Is Good For America'-What Should You Do During A National Crisis?, Forbers, 5 June 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/gautammukunda/2020/06/05/whats-good-for-gm-is-good-for-americawhat-should-you-do-during-a-national-crisis/?sh=1df72b9c6d3b, accessed 18 February 2022.

20. P Gibson, J Henrichs, Member profile Joerg Henrichs, TableAus, March/April 2022, p. 18.

21. B Bahrami, Why we still fall for influencers, salesmen and politicians who lie, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/why-we-still-fall-for-influencers-salesmen-and-politicians-who-lie-173542, 16 December 2021, accessed 17 February 2022.

22. We Are Here For Your Children Until They Grow Up, 2019.Company 7mshop.icu, https://www.fomshop.ml/products.aspx?cname=child+bike+protective+gear, accessed 15 February 2022.

23. Toughen up, parents, your kids need some bad news, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 23 May 2014.

24. Mental health and suicide prevention, Australian Government Department of Health, https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/mental-health-and-suicide-prevention, accessed 19 February 2022.

25. Deaths by suicide among young people, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, https://www.aihw.gov.au/suicide-self-harm-monitoring/data/populations-age-groups/suicide-among-young-people, accessed 19 February 2022.

21 February 2022

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