If You Want Democracy to Succeed Elsewhere, You Should Make It Work Here First

Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post is worried about the receding state of “democracy” in the world:

As America this weekend celebrates the birth of its liberty, in much of the rest of the world freedom and democracy are in retreat.

Over the past decade, authoritarian rulers have refined their techniques to stay in power, learning from each other and thinking two steps ahead of democratic forces. Unprepared for this systematic reply to the advance of democracy from the 1970s through the 1990s, democratic governments have yet to formulate a coherent response.

“A global political recession” is how Tom Melia describes the current state of affairs. Melia is deputy director of Freedom House, a nonprofit that annually measures the state of liberty in every nation — and that has found “more countries seeing declines in overall freedom than gains” in recent years, Melia said last week.

There are, IMHO, two main problems here.

The first is that the information technology we think is so conducive to “democracy” (true representative government is what’s really on the table here) tends, in most places, to favour the centralising of power.  That’s because it’s easier to gather information on your citizenry and stamp out power challengers before they get off of the ground.  That was certainly the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and now in Iran and China.  The democratising effect of the Internet in our own society is based on the fact that we had the legal framework for the free exchange of ideas–and the protection of that freedom–in place before the media got going.

The second problem is more subtle.  I used to have a statement in my About page that stated that democracy was dying in the places that made it work in modern times.  It’s no secret that we have a dysfunctional political system that is expensive to keep up and produces marginal results.  Beyond that, if we read what our élites say and take their words at face value, what we see is a strong lack of faith in people to make their own decisions, and for democratic processes to produce acceptable results unless those results go their way.  We see the insatiable desire to centralise economic power.  Finally we see a culture that is obsessed with educational institutions (not necessarily real education, just the institutions) to the point where only products of certain ones get to actually make the substantive decisions in our society, to say nothing about educational qualifications for positions that may or may not need them.  Educational institutions are, by their nature, inherently undemocratic, and if we make them a model for everything else, democracy will suffer, even if we like the results.

The example we’re putting forth right at the moment isn’t inspiring to those who would consider opening up their societies to a more democratic process.  If we want these processes to work elsewhere, we need to start making them work here first.

Michael Steele is Right About the War in Afghanistan

And no one in the Republican party wants to admit it:

Top Senate Republicans on Sunday stopped short of asking Michael Steele to resign for his suggestion last week that the war in Afghanistan could not be won, seeming to signal that the ever-embattled Republican National Committee chairman will survive his latest self-inflicted wound.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with Republicans on most foreign policy issues, all harshly criticized Steele during appearances on Sunday’s talk shows – but none of them joined the chorus of Republican foreign policy hawks demanding that Steele step down.

Steele has survived previous flaps ranging from ill-advised criticism of Rush Limbaugh all the way to approving a $2,000 expense at a bondage-themed strip club. At a fundraiser Thursday, he said that “everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed [to win in Afghanistan], and there are reasons for that,” and called the conflict, approaching its ninth year, “a war of Obama’s choosing.”

I can’t say that Steele is the optimal chairman of the party, but he’s right on this one, and the “hawks” need to face reality.  Afghanistan has been a graveyard of military reputations for a lone time, and our overrestrictive rules of engagement (which have been developed, in part, by our military brass) only make matters worse.

Besides, it’s patently absurd to expect a President with the intellectual heritage that Barack Obama has to properly conduct a war of any kind.  If we want a President to properly lead our military, we need a different one altogether.  The GOP needs to work towards that end and quit criticising its chairman for stating the obvious.  But stating the obvious is the quickest way to get into trouble in American politics.

Why Constitutionalism is a Bust

In his clumsy, populistic way, Senator Tom Coburn (R,OK) has hit on something really important:

Since it’s clear Kagan is not an originalist (although it’s not clear what she is), it’s not surprising that natural rights strike her as a distraction from the proper work of a Supreme Court justice. When she says D.C. v. Heller “made clear that the Second Amendment conferred that right [to arms] upon individuals,” she is expressing the positivist view that we have whatever rights we have by virtue of the law (including the Constitution). Although she did not directly answer the question, it’s pretty clear she believes those rights are not pre-existing. When she says, “I don’t have a view of what are natural rights, independent of the Constitution,” her agnosticism is hard to distinguish from atheism. (I don’t mean to imply that believing in natural rights requires believing in God; Ayn Rand certainly didn’t think so.)

Still, it’s hard to believe that Kagan really thinks there is no external standard by which to judge the morality of a constitution. If our Constitution is better now that it bans slavery than it was when it tacitly allowed slavery, why is that? The traditional American answer is that slavery violates basic human rights, a.k.a. natural rights, that people have by virtue of being people, regardless of what the law says. What would it cost Kagan to acknowledge as much?

Coburn is one of those people who evidently believes (as I do) that our Declaration of Independence, whose proclamation we are celebrating today, is our foundational document.  Kagan is one of these people who believes that the Constitution is that foundational document although, for anyone familiar with French history, such an idea is a ROFL moment if there ever was one.

It’s an important issue.  If we take Coburn’s position, then we must interpret the Constitution according to the ideas of the Declaration, which includes the concept of natural rights.  If we take Kagan’s position, then the basic rights we have are subject to amendment, be that by explicit constitutional amendment or by fiat amendment from the bench.  And that amendment, in turn, is subject to whatever “prevailing” values are on that bench.

That’s the central flaw in the Tea Party’s obsession with the Constitution: in the hands of a supple judiciary, it becomes whatever they say it is, and the appeal possibilities are decidedly limited.  The Tea Party will, in the end, be hoisted by its own petard.

What Coburn should have asked Kagan is something like, “If the Declaration of Independence isn’t our foundational document, then what right does the country have to exist?”  But neither he nor most conservatives have the guts to ask that question.

The Gift of Faith: Cyril of Jerusalem

From his Catechetical Lectures, around 347-8:

But there is a second kind of faith, which is bestowed by Christ as a gift of grace. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit: to another faith, by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing. (1 Corinthians 12:8-9) This faith then which is given of grace from the Spirit is not merely doctrinal, but also works things above man’s power. For whosoever has this faith, shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove. (Mark 11:23) For whenever any one shall say this in faith, believing that it comes to pass, and shall not doubt in his heart, then receives he the grace.

And of this faith it is said, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed. (Matthew 17:20) For just as the grain of mustard seed is small in size, but fiery in its operation, and though sown in a small space has a circle of great branches, and when grown up is able even to shelter the fowls (Matthew 13:32); so, likewise, faith in the swiftest moment works the greatest effects in the soul. For, when enlightened by faith, the soul has visions of God, and as far as is possible beholds God, and ranges round the bounds of the universe, and before the end of this world already beholds the Judgement, and the payment of the promised rewards. Have thou therefore that faith in Him which comes from your own self, that you may also receive from Him that faith which works things above man. (V, 12)

Katharine Jefferts-Schori: Pushing People Towards the Margins

If you are given the opportunity to talk long and frequently long enough, you will blurt out the truth, as Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori did in New Zealand:

Disagreement with The Episcopal Church about gay bishops is one thing: but why have those two ordinations provoked such intense antagonism?

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told yesterday’s Q&A session at Te Hepara Pai that she figures that’s about loss of power.

“I think it represents the pain and discomfort of people who used to be at the centre, and who are now finding themselves being moved to the margins.

“In my context, 200 years ago the landed white gentry were in control of a monoculture. ‘Now all of these people have come along and messed with that: how dare they?’”

She finally admits what I’ve said for a long time: what this whole business is about is not inclusion or tolerance, but replacing one predominant, empowered group with another.  It’s that simple, and perhaps the fact that she was on the other side of the world removed some of her inhibitions.  Or perhaps she has become so triumphalistic that she doesn’t care whether the truth comes out or not.  Either way, she has ceded the moral high ground (assuming she had any, which I doubt) in a big way.

The trout in the milk, for her at least, is the Africans.  They have been disempowered par excellence, and now that’s changing.  And guess at whose expense?  Perhaps she is expressing her own state.  She and those of her idea have been pushing orthodox Episcopalians towards the margins (and out of the church in many cases) for many years.  Now, perhaps, she and her allies are being pushed by the Africans out of the Communion.

As we say in the hills, some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you…

Rufinus on the Canon of Scripture

From his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed (36-38):

Whence also the Apostle says, “All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for instruction.” And therefore it seems proper in this place to enumerate, as we have learned from the tradition of the Fathers, the books of the New and of the Old Testament, which, according to the tradition of our forefathers, are believed to have been inspired by the Holy Ghost, and have been handed down to the Churches of Christ.

Of the Old Testament, therefore, first of all there have been handed down five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy; Then Jesus Nave, (Joshua the son of Nun), The Book of Judges together with Ruth; then four books of Kings (Reigns), which the Hebrews reckon two; the Book of Omissions, which is entitled the Book of Days (Chronicles), and two books of Ezra (Ezra and Nehemiah), which the Hebrews reckon one, and Esther; of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel; moreover of the twelve (minor) Prophets, one book; Job also and the Psalms of David, each one book. Solomon gave three books to the Churches, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles. These comprise the books of the Old Testament.

Of the New there are four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke; fourteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, two of the Apostle Peter, one of James, brother of the Lord and Apostle, one of Jude, three of John, the Revelation of John. These are the books which the Fathers have comprised within the Canon, and from which they would have us deduce the proofs of our faith.

But it should be known that there are also other books which our fathers call not “Canonical” but “Ecclesiastical:” that is to say, Wisdom, called the Wisdom of Solomon, and another Wisdom, called the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, which last-mentioned the Latins called by the general title Ecclesiasticus, designating not the author of the book, but the character of the writing. To the same class belong the Book of Tobit, and the Book of Judith, and the Books of the Maccabees. In the New Testament the little book which is called the Book of the Pastor of Hermas, [and that] which is called The Two Ways, or the Judgement of Peter; all of which they would have read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine. The other writings they have named “Apocrypha.” These they would not have read in the Churches.

These are the traditions which the Fathers have handed down to us, which, as I said, I have thought it opportune to set forth in this place, for the instruction of those who are being taught the first elements of the Church and of the Faith, that they may know from what fountains of the Word of God their draughts must be taken.

Those of you who are counting will recognise Rufinus’ list of the canon of Scripture is identical to what Protestant and Evangelical churches use today (as, for the Old Testament, is the case in Judaism as well.)

Rufinus’ distinction between “canonical” and “ecclesiastical” is replicated in Article VI of the Anglican Articles of Religion, although there it’s attributed to Jerome.  Jerome’s opinion on the subject is discussed in my Apologetics for the Rest of Us.