8/14 Flashback: Democracy > elections

8/14 Flashback: Democracy > elections August 14, 2022

From August 14, 2013, “First guarantee minority rights. Elections come later.”


We Americans believe in democracy so we tend to celebrate whenever anyone holds an election. That’s a mistake.

Democracy doesn’t just mean voting, and thus elections should not come first. First come legal safeguards for minorities — a commitment to a constitution that guarantees basic human rights for all that cannot be taken away regardless of who wins any given election.

Lots of Americans don’t understand that. That’s why we see this wave of voter suppression legislation. If you think democracy means nothing more than winning elections — the tyranny of the 50.01 percent — then such efforts to strip minorities of their rights makes a perverse kind of sense. If elections are the most important thing, then as soon as Party A wins an election, it would make sense for them to “democratically” pass a law prohibiting members of Party B from voting in future elections and thereby guaranteeing the perpetual reign of Party A.

But that’s not democracy, because in democracy, elections are never the most important thing. Elections are, in fact, meaningless without a prior guarantee of the rights of minorities — rights that cannot ever be contingent on who wins the next election.

The worst current American example of this confusion comes from the attempt by certain bishops and CEOS and Manhattan-Declaring clowns to redefine “religious liberty” as the right of the powerful to impose their sectarian beliefs on the powerless. If the majority of a community belongs to a particular sect, they say, then that majority should have the right to establish that sect as an official, privileged and public religion for the entire community. If the owner of a company holds religious beliefs, they say, then that owner should have the right to enforce those religious beliefs on all of his employees — even to the extent of determining what those employees may or may not spend their earnings on.

This perversion of religious liberty is profoundly anti-democratic. It is anti-democratic in precisely the same way as that hypothetical law above prohibiting anyone from voting for Party B. It reduces democracy to mere elections and then imagines that the result of those elections trumps any prior claim to basic rights for the losers of that vote. The tyranny of the 50.01 percent, the tyranny of the winners of an election, is still tyranny, not democracy.

For a glimpse of the inevitable consequences of this perversion of religious liberty and of this reduction of democracy, just take a look at what’s now unfolding in Egypt. The now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood administration represented a majority of Egyptian voters, but it interpreted that majority as a mandate to impose its sectarian beliefs on the whole of Egyptian society. The minority of Egyptians lost the election and so, according to the winners, they also lost the right to determine their own conscience.

This led, inevitably, to violence. Without a guarantee of religious freedom for minorities — for the losers of elections, for dissenters and outsiders of every kind — there will always be violence. Without such a guarantee, the stakes are simply too high for anyone to accept a losing outcome in an “election.”

Americans enjoy this guarantee, and so some Americans look at the sectarian violence in places like Egypt or Iraq and imagine that it is somehow only a feature of Muslim culture. Nonsense. It’s a feature of the universal human desire for the universal human right of freedom of conscience. As an American, I will (for the most part) retain my religious freedom regardless of the outcome of any given election. But what if losing an election meant that I would also have to adopt the religion of the winners? What if it meant I would have to start paying a church tax? Have to re-baptize myself or my children? What if it meant I would be required to renounce what I believe and to proclaim my allegiance to that which I do not believe?

I would take to the streets. So would you. So would anyone. The stakes of freedom of conscience are too high for anyone to allow them to be decided at the polls.

That is why government cannot be sectarian. If the sectarian identity of the government — and therefore of the governed — can be changed in the next election, then no one has freedom of conscience, only the possibility of privilege of conscience contingent on whether one’s own beliefs correspond with those of the majority.

Again, the stakes are too high there to leave such vital matters of freedom and identity to a simple majority ballot. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience have to be taken off the table — have to be guaranteed as essential, non-negotiable, non-surrenderable rights for all, regardless of which faction wins the next election.

The dim American “thinkers” proposing a redefinition of religious liberty are, right now, feeding the violence in Egypt. The second-rate academics offering third-rate arguments against secular government here are seeing those arguments cited and echoed by the proponents of sectarian government all over the world.

Congratulations, idiots. I know you thought you were being clever when you decided to argue that “secular” was, itself, a sect — a religion of non-sectarianism. You pulled this little semantic knot so tight that you figured others might mistake it for a meaningful thought. But, predictably, it turns out that your arguments in favor of sectarian government, while largely unconvincing, still have consequences. Bloody, lethal consequences.

It’s long been annoying to me, personally, to have to avoid the word “secular” so as not to contribute to the confusion you folks have sown around that word. It was a good word, a necessary and useful word. It was a meaningful word — it meant something and did not mean other things. But thanks to your pretending for so long that it doesn’t mean what it means, I’ve had to move away from that word — substituting “non-sectarian” just to underscore how empty, ridiculous and self-refuting your claim of a “religion of secularism” is.

But my annoyance over having to retreat from a useful and necessary word pales in comparison to the more tangible, violent consequences of your deliberate confusion as it’s playing out right now in places like Egypt.

You’ve spent years attacking tolerance because, you said, smirking, it’s supposedly hypocritical for not tolerating intolerance. And you’ve spent years attacking secular governance because, you said, with that same sophomoric smirk, that it was just a way of establishing the sect of non-sectarianism. And you’ve congratulated yourselves all the while for producing an argument so semantically nonsensical that it is impossible to sensibly refute.

And what I want to know is how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?


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