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Multiculturalism v/s Democracy
August 21, 2002 5:43 AM   Subscribe

Multiculturalism v/s Democracy On this day in 1858, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln, a Kentucky-born lawyer and one-time U.S. Representative from Illinois, began a series of famous public debates on the issue of slavery, during the course of which Lincoln said:

"They [Founding Fathers] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where."

I argue that when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality, regardless of the reasons, that culture is incompatible with Democracy and the ideals of American society, and can not and should not be embraced by Americans. Is it possible that part of the anger at the US stems from the "spreading and deepening" influence of American principles, and not just at our economic and military mistakes?
posted by ewkpates (28 comments total)

 
I'm not so sure what you mean by the "anger at the US" and the vague "spreading and deepening" et cetera, but it's the ideal which makes Americans Americans, and similar to, and unlike almost every other country on the planet.

If you have the ability to see stars from the pigsty, then there's hope. But it certainly doesn't mean you're not dirty, or that you don't stink. I still respect the dream of the ideal.

What is your point, exactly?
posted by hama7 at 6:35 AM on August 21, 2002


On this day in 1858..... I argue that when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality, regardless of the reasons, that culture is incompatible with Democracy and the ideals of American society, and can not and should not be embraced by Americans.

I'm a little confused as to your point. Is it that we had slavery in our past and it was wrong? (It was.) Is it that we are still troubled by inequality? (We are.) Is it that we still have slavery? (We don't.)

Besides which, racism and economic inequality are worldwide. The US is not unique in this problem. Additionally, among the places that hate (or just dislike) Americans, there are quite a few places that either practiced slavery in their past or currently practice it.

(On preview, I see that hama7 has similar questions.)

What are you trying to get at?
posted by kayjay at 6:40 AM on August 21, 2002


You'll need to define "Democracy" as we don't live in a strictly democratic state.
posted by Dagobert at 6:45 AM on August 21, 2002


Thanks for the history link. I love the crowd interaction in these debates:

MR. LINCOLN-Well, then, let us talk about Popular Sovereignty! [Laughter.] What is Popular Sovereignty? [Cries of "A humbug," "a humbug."]

Can you imagine how fun those were compared to the carefully controlled Jim Lehrer snorefests we get now? I live in a state where Elizabeth Dole's Senate campaign has avoided debating her primary opponents completely and will probably try to do the same in the general election, so it's nice to be reminded of more interesting days.

Btw, a MeTa thread about the overuse of bolded text in front-page posts has been started. A humbug! A humbug!
posted by mediareport at 6:52 AM on August 21, 2002


I argue that when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality, regardless of the reasons, that culture is incompatible with Democracy and the ideals of American society, and can not and should not be embraced by Americans.

Also, this country wasn't "built on inequality," it was built on idealistic goals for equality that admittedly are taking a while to implement.

I might also point out that the definition of who should be "equal" is something that has changed, not only in this country but in many around the world over the last 200 years. Throughout history there have been examples or more or less democratic societies where privileges were not enjoyed equally by all citizens. I think the USofA is getting closer to true equality of opportunity for all as time passes.

I don't really understand what you're trying to say. It reads as though you either think Americans shouldn't "embrace" democracy because the form we have in this country isn't perfect, or that you think we're all tainted because there are things we're ashamed of in our history and thus don't deserve to call ourselves a democracy.

Previewing, I see I'm not the only one confused.
posted by AnneZo at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2002


I argue that when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality, regardless of the reasons, that culture is incompatible with Democracy and the ideals of American society...

well said! how do you propose we begin to disengage from the amerikan corporate culture you describe?
posted by quonsar at 7:08 AM on August 21, 2002


ewkpates: Thank you for the link. These debates are fascinating. I wish I wasn't at work so that I could finish reading them. However, I am not sure what point you are trying to make. Could you please clarify? The quote you used comes not from the speech on August 21, but on October 15 and in this portion of the speech Lincoln is trying to clarify that he does not feel the negro to be equal in all respects to the white man. Prejudice against blacks ran deep in these times and abolition and equality were not necessarily sought together. In any event, how do these words lead to your point about our principles and just exactly what is your point. I do not mean to be disrespectful, I just do not understand what you are saying.
posted by caddis at 7:24 AM on August 21, 2002


Is it possible that part of the anger at the US stems from the "spreading and deepening" influence of American principles, and not just at our economic and military mistakes?

I should think that more of the anger arises from the extensive and fundamental conflict between our principles and our historic and ongoing lack of commitment to encouraging same in other nations and cultures--and in many cases, our active efforts to thwart, sidestep and undermine those self-same principles. Hypocrisy fires anger like no other fuel.
posted by rushmc at 7:47 AM on August 21, 2002


Is it possible that part of the anger at the US stems from the "spreading and deepening" influence of American principles, and not just at our economic and military mistakes?

This is how I understand this question; American values such as democracy and equality are spreading to other parts of the globe. As people around the world absorb these values, they come to resent powers that are seen as anti-democratic or elitest. In places where the United States itself is seen as an opponent of popular power, America bears the brunt of this resentment.

If I understand the question correctly, then the short answer IMHO is "no," for the reason that in these places where the anger toward the US is strongest, US values are not spreading. Resentment toward oppressive power is a natural human reaction, and doesn't need grounding in US-inspired notions of democracy or freedom.

In certain parts of the world, particularly the mideast, the US is associated with oppressive local regimes (Ariel Sharon's Israel, the Saudi royal family, the former Shah of Iran). People suffering under these regimes come to hate the US for it's percieved support of local suppression. They don't necessarily believe in anything like American ideals, nor would they associate America with these ideals if they did.
posted by Loudmax at 7:51 AM on August 21, 2002


Loudmax: I think that is the sensible analysis also. Further, it is because of the hypocrisy which western nations - the US & the UK are equally guilty - practice [ie, asserting the primacy of democratic values, when talking about Saddam & the Ayatollahs, but not promoting same in arenas where economic interests predominate, ie, Saudi Arabia, Latin America] which enrages the common man. The whole world hates that practice: as much in contemporary America as it did in empires gone by.
posted by dash_slot- at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2002


Recently, I read a reference to Lincoln's second inaugural address, which the author referred to as the single greatest example of American oratory, and about which I could remember almost nothing, except that it must have taken place in 1865, weeks before the President's death.

Since I read it, I've been obsessed with the idea of Bush winning reelection and comparing his "wartime" speech with Lincoln's. Lincoln talked about both sides invoking God's name, and what this possibly meant. This takes only a few minutes to read, but imagine a soundbite politician trying to talk like this today:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"
posted by planetkyoto at 9:21 AM on August 21, 2002


All of Lincolns speeches were poetic but illogical (to paraphrase Mencken), the only difference is that politicians spoke in a much higher literary tone than politicians do today.
posted by insomnyuk at 9:24 AM on August 21, 2002


This was a confusing post - thought I'd chime in to question a few assumptions here though ... First, a notion seems to be assumed in this discussion - that inequality is bad, and runs counter to democratic principles. There is, however, nothing in democratic theory that says it is supposed to guarantee equality of outcome (I presume the word "equality" in this discussion refers to the different levels of income and wealth among different segments of American society). The ideal in democracy is to deliver equality of opportunity. One can either govern the means, or the end - not both. If you want equality of outcomes - e.g., almost everyone making approximately the same amount of money, you must remove a lot of liberties, and heavily enforce your ideal (socialism and communism attempt to do this. It rarely works over time, and often turns brutal).

Second while this board sometimes does seem to accept it as a given that America is evil and corrupt and everyone hates it, I'd just suggest that this is, at best, a very partial view of the truth. There are some political classes in the world that do not like American power - but generally these are composed of people who impose intense, often harsh controls on their own populations ... and perceive America and American values as something that hurts their ability to do so. The fact that Syria, or Iran, or Iraq, or China dislikes this country is not surprising - remember, the students in Tianamon Square erected a copy of the Statue of Liberty to express their ideals ....

As bad as people claim this country is, there are still, to this day, people from countries all over earth that literally risk their lives to try to get into it. Nobody thinks America is perfect - in fact Americans themselves are some of the most self-critical people around - and it is easy to point to some lofty ideal (that no one anywhere has ever pulled off in practice), measure the country against it, and say it falls well short. Most nations, however, would fall well short, and those that hate America the worst would actually look nearly horrendous if measured against those same ideals. There ain't much of a waiting line of immigrants begging to get into Iran ...
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:57 AM on August 21, 2002


Since ewkpates hasn't stepped in to clear up the confusion, let me very tentatively suggest that by "when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality..." he's referring to foreign (I presume Middle Eastern/Islamic) cultures that resent/attack the US, not to continuing problems in US culture. That way his argument falls into the standard "they hate us because we're democratic" pattern, and the Lincoln quote is just a snazzy intro to supply a link. But I may well be wrong.
posted by languagehat at 10:20 AM on August 21, 2002


Loudmax:

You said:

"In certain parts of the world, particularly the mideast, the US is associated with oppressive local regimes (Ariel Sharon's Israel, the Saudi royal family, the former Shah of Iran). People suffering under these regimes come to hate the US for it's percieved support of local suppression."

One of those three countries doesn't belong on that list. Here's a quick quiz:

1. What's the only country besides Turkey in the Middle East that affords its Arab citizens the right to vote and that has elected Arab officials in its government?

2. Who lost 4 wars of aggression in a row and is now whining about the fact that they lost?

3. What is the ratio of Arabs killed by Israelis to the ratio of Arabs killed by other Arabs in the last 20 years? (An order of magnitude will suffice.)

Thank you for playing.
posted by godlesscapitalist at 11:20 AM on August 21, 2002


MidasMulligan:
Exactly right about the immigration differential. In the end, people vote with their feet.

Also, the reason that equality of outcome is fundamentally incompatible with equality of result is because people have inherent genetic differences. That's something a lot of people don't like to admit, but radical nurturism/Lysenkoism was just as virulent as genetic determinism.
posted by godlesscapitalist at 11:29 AM on August 21, 2002


my mistake: above post should read

"equality of opportunity is fundamentally incompatible with equality of result..."
posted by godlesscapitalist at 11:30 AM on August 21, 2002


If you want equality of outcomes - e.g., almost everyone making approximately the same amount of money, you must remove a lot of liberties, and heavily enforce your ideal (socialism and communism attempt to do this. It rarely works over time, and often turns brutal).

And if you don't want equality of outcomes, e.g. you want a few people to make a lot of money, you must remove a lot of liberties and heavily enforce your ideal (ie hundreds of years of slavery and racism happily enforced by our friends, the capitalists).

The banality and stupidity of tyrants (from CEOs to czars) can be found in any economic system, from communism to capitalism.

Also, the reason that equality of outcome is fundamentally incompatible with equality of result is because people have inherent genetic differences.

Why, such utter synchronicity! Capitalism nudges us gently toward the slippery slope to racism once more, as if Lincoln had never uttered the words quoted above.

Let's see if I can simplify the mantra of the moneyed. Animals are inherently genetically different from us. Let us use them as we please. Some humans are inherently genetically different from each other. Let us use some of them as we please. If someone has a "genetic difference" that makes them a superior thief, the great unwashed masses should just say "more power to ya, here's my wallet". The fundamental argument of the greedheads is, and always shall be, "I'm better than you at hoarding wealth, therefore I deserve more wealth".

Pitiable. Wealth robs life.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 12:51 PM on August 21, 2002


Just a thought Midas - the picture most people have of America is based on what they can see in popular media. Enthusiasm for immigration can't really be evidence of the attraction of America, only of the attraction of America's image.

Speaking as a non American, I would like to agree with rushmc. I am frequently irritated by the obvious disconnect between the utterly admirable founding principles of the state, and the generally self-interested, imperial foreign policy. Almost all countries follow their own self-interest (or at least their rulers' self-interest) in foreign policy of course, but America is most salient, and therefore cops the most shit. Victims of your own propaganda, in fact.

And yeah, there are other cultural values that are spreading into my country that I don't like. "Presidential-style" elections where the personality of the leader is paramount. The belief that financial success is indicative of rather than incidental to virtue. Taylorite management that sees workers as replaceable resources. Aggression in business and public life as good rather than rude. Exaggeration the superior of understatement. Etc. Not all of these are bad, and dominant economic powers influence other cultures through sheer prestige rather than malice, but I still don't like it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2002


MM: There is, however, nothing in democratic theory that says it is supposed to guarantee equality of outcome (I presume the word "equality" in this discussion refers to the different levels of income and wealth among different segments of American society).

godlesscapitalist: Also, the reason that equality of outcome is fundamentally incompatible with equality of result is because people have inherent genetic differences.


Equality of opportunity is, I think, the larger part of democratic society, but it is not "fundamentally" incompatible with equality of outcome. Public schools, for example, strive, or should strive, to equip students with learning skills without which they cannot begin to take advantage of opportunities afforded them; in that case equality of outcome is essential to opportunity.

Theoretically there is a level of poverty below which no person should be allowed to exist and society takes steps to ensure that they don't have to. That's not communism, that's just civilization.

As far as justifying inequality in terms of genetic differences, that only strengthens the argument for social welfare, since these people, through no fault of their own, just can't compete.

Second while this board sometimes does seem to accept it as a given that America is evil and corrupt and everyone hates it, I'd just suggest that this is, at best, a very partial view of the truth.

I would suggest that that's a partial view of the members of this board.

Nice to see you back, MM.
posted by Ty Webb at 1:54 PM on August 21, 2002


I am frequently irritated by the obvious disconnect between the utterly admirable founding principles of the state, and the generally self-interested, imperial foreign policy.

I'm glad you're not the only one who has noticed this. I believe that the revolution was for economic reasons, and it was an attempt by the founders to rise above the mercantilist system the British were forcing on them. Since they were on the short end of the stick, it makes sense that they would be very anti-mercantilist, hence free trade between the states and a generally laissez-faire economy. The political system was structured to avoid mercantilism by decentralizing and balancing the power of the federal state. Power was shared between the states, the people, and the branches of the federal government, so no ones special interests could tyrannize the special interests of another. Over time, however, this balance and decentralization was thrown off (with various ill-thought out amendments, especially direct election of senators and the income tax), and those in power welcomed mercantilism, esentially politicians using government power to create situations favorable for cronies, or to outright give them money (we call it 'government contracts' today). In terms of political and economic reality, our country is quite different than it was 200 years ago. Our economy has remained stable for extra-political reasons, but the government can still screw it up.

As fold_and_mutilate pointed out (that's twice in one day I've agreed with him), any system can be overtaken by a tyrant. However, the more decentralized a system, the more difficult it is for a tyrant to do this. Hitler, for example, argued vehemently in favor of unification of the Germanic provinces, which had been separate and independent for thousands of years, with the occasional empire in between. Unification made his rise to power hundreds of times more devastating.

Theoretically there is a level of poverty below which no person should be allowed to exist and society takes steps to ensure that they don't have to. That's not communism, that's just civilization.

It's only communism when that equality is enforced by the coercive, violent power of the state.
posted by insomnyuk at 2:43 PM on August 21, 2002


It's only communism when that equality is enforced by the coercive, violent power of the state.

When, in your opinion, is the power of the state not coercive and violent?
posted by Ty Webb at 2:47 PM on August 21, 2002


It always is, I was just using those as descriptive adjectives, not qualifiers. Sorry if my grammar was misleading. When it's not state-enforced, it's called charity.
posted by insomnyuk at 2:58 PM on August 21, 2002


Read this: George Washington's Farewell Address to the Nation

A really great speech, still relevant in many ways. You can skip the first few bits, it gets good in the last third.
posted by cell divide at 3:02 PM on August 21, 2002


insomnyuk, I think you're overstating. Either that or your dogma is showing.
posted by Ty Webb at 3:03 PM on August 21, 2002


You're right Ty, I am overstating. Communism is the practice of forced equality in extremis, I left out all of the phases in between.
posted by insomnyuk at 4:02 PM on August 21, 2002


Sorry for contributing to the massive thread drift, as well. Now back to the original supposition of the poster:

I argue that when a culture values slavery, when a culture is built upon a system of basic inequality, regardless of the reasons, that culture is incompatible with Democracy and the ideals of American society, and can not and should not be embraced by Americans.

First of all, democracy and the ideals of American society are two very, very different things. We have limited democracy with a republican form of government, not full-blown, Greek democracy. Democracy is a mechanism of government, not a full-fledged political system of thought. Also, American society is heterogeneous enough that it is problematic to try and ascribe one set of ideals to the entire society.

Also, slavery and inequality are two different things, depending on what kind of inequality you are talking about. In a free society, two people, with equal rights and protection under the law, cannot possibly be expected to live equally, in the larger sense. Inequality of income, for example, is a foundation of a successful, and prosperous free market. Inequality results is because people, and the choices they make, are different, and their free choices will set them upon different paths leading to different outcomes, economic and otherwise. There is no need for some genetic argument to prove the fact that people are different, or that their outcomes will be different, because it is apparent that people in similar conditions can have different preferences and will make divergent choices. Even if you ensured total, physically enforced equality (which is impossible) of condition from the cradle to the grave, people would still lead different lives inwardly. Which makes the whole thing pointless, unless someone can provide an irrefutable case for government mandated equality of condition. The only equality I can find is that people are inherently equal in their ontological value, and ought to have equal rights and protection under the law.
posted by insomnyuk at 4:57 PM on August 21, 2002


*Why inequality results, is because
posted by insomnyuk at 4:59 PM on August 21, 2002


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