Sometimes it takes a mirror image to see our own condition more clearly. Having just read about the European Union’s states experiment with various forms of direct democracy, I began to reflect about our own.
The EU members have several ways of accepting, or rejecting, changes to their constitution. Last June Ireland’s referendum on the subject failed, and it was said that the no votes could mean the end of the Union. Since, various European leaders have been looking for ways to redo or rethink the Ireland experience. Meanwhile, the whole idea of referenda and what they mean is also being talked about. One reason is because it is not uniform. There are four models.
- States where voters can call for a referendum and its results are binding for the government: Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy and Denmark
- States where the referenda have to be introduced by the Parliament or the government: Sweden, France, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain
- States where referenda are rare: Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Estonia and Greece
- States where the constitution in practice contains few or no provision for referenda: Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria.
One’s first reaction may be, no wonder the EU is having such a hard time, but there’s a more fundamental issue, how each state chooses to practice democracy. In the U.S we are so used to using the word democracy, we tend to slide over what it means. We believe democracy is best, superior to any other form of government and then make a jump to therefore equate our way with what is best. We forget what it is that gives democracy its edge, it is political participation. There are, indeed, many ways and many degrees of participation in the political process, all valid if one applies the criterion of consent of the governed, a criterion which has a long philosophical, legal and spiritual pedigree. We erroneously assume that democracy automatically means direct democracy and that our system of election is best, forgetting all the while that ours is not as direct as we often think, but a representative democracy, whereby we elect individuals to participate in democracy 0n our behalf. The voters in the first category above, for example, believe in something much more direct than our system, their vote is directly binding on the government. Any way is valid, it seems, as long as two factors are met, one that there is a level of political participation and second that this level be agreed upon–if not chosen.
Perhaps the next time a President or some surrogate talks about spreading democracy, we can remind ourselves of the underlying questions that raises and be better equipped to either agree or disagree.
The news this week end was sure to include that Christina Applegate was being treated for breast cancer. She’s an Emmy nominated actress who played one of Jennifer Aniston’s character sisters on “Friends”, and given today’s culture, that’s news. Maybe it’s the remnant of my J School training, but I must ask why?
First what makes her, or the list of actresses that have so far been afflicted, more important than anyone else? I’ve had breast cancer, so have many of my friends, Sylvia, Harriett, Bonnie, Deborah… and if I am to include family members, the list could grow long. In fact there isn’t a cancer type a family member hasn’t had, including brain and spinal cancers. My list is far from unique. It’s the norm. Don’t we all have a list of friends and family members who have had cancer? So why single Ms Applegate this week end and whatever actress will next be diagnosed next week or next month? Why does being a celebrity, however small the accompanying fame may be, make one more important than those we care about? It’s not that I ignore what celebrity means, if Elizabeth Taylor, who has been a star my entire life, were to be diagnosed, I’d feel a twinge, but it wouldn’t be like what I felt when my cousin Yolande had a recurrence of breast cancer and then it spread to the lungs and she was given what turned out to be the wrong medication and died within days.
The emotional aspects aside, we are legal equals. But more important we are spiritual equals. What distinguishes us as spiritual beings may revolve around how much love we have but I feel quite confident asserting it would not include being a celebrity. Which all brings me back to my original question, why are we treating a celebrity’s announcement of cancer as news? So many interesting stories go uncovered, so many issues crucial to our understanding the world around us need to be talked about. Why do we settle for the health details of every one in the public eye, and treat them as news?
The news is that People magazine in conjunction with the British Hello! will pay $14 million (yes fourteen millions) for the right to print the first pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s new twins. Previously the source said, the highest sum had been paid for Jennifer Lopez’s twins, $6 million. The magazines are willing to pay such phenomenal sums on the basis that the interest and extra news stands sales the pictures generate will at the very least cover the cost. And of course the pro argument continues. Pitt and Jolie are donating the millions to a foundation they created to help children. Presumably that redeems the excess, the money will therefore serve a good purpose and all should be all right. As I recall $25,000 in Africa can build a nice school. Fourteen million ought to build a long string of them.
But it’s more complex than that. It’s first that it makes us accomplices to this exorbitant sum, because without us, the consumer, to look, scrutinize, peek, comment, coo or criticize, the pictures are worthless. And second is what it says about us, about us as a society and about us as individuals. Many, I would surmise, will feel as I do and yet will go right ahead and look at the pictures, feeling that once the sale is made, there’s nothing we can do. I would venture to say, yes there is, boycott the picture, do not look at them or read the magazine. If we do not bite, then they’ll think twice about paying such sums for pictures of innocent babies whose sole claim on fame is that their parents are movie stars. What’s even more disquieting is what it says about us as a society. More than the majority of us believe the country is on the wrong track. Surely how we use money is related to what’s ailing us, and I don’t think I even need statistics to say that of those who feel that way, more than the majority will agree that the value we place on money is part of the problem. To me that’s another good reason to boycott the picture, to make a point we want better and we deserve better than a society where the price of a baby picture is more than the lifetime earnings of our less fortunate millions.
Giesecke & Devrient is a European company that has been providing Zimbabwe with paper. After pressure from the German government, itself pressured by the threat of protests, it cut off supplies to the African nation. Jura JSP is the Hungarian-Austrian company which supplies the software licenses and design for the banknotes. The program is said to be very technical, and not easily replicated. They too are reported to be withdrawing their contract. Zimbabwe has been printing money at will, which has led to the kind of inflation most of us can’t comprehend. One English pound last week was trading at 1.3 trillion Zimbabwe dollars. Without these two companies it can no longer do so. The UK Guardian newspaper reported that what it called a”knowledgeable source” had said the looming actions by these companies has created an air of panic. Some in the Zimbabwe government are in a panic because without the software they can’t print any money. The government has been paying the military and officials with this printed money. Without it and the purchasing power it gave them, observers wonder whether or not they will mutiny. As it is their income has not kept pace with the cost of living and these same observers suspect that many of these middle and senior ranking government officials have long stopped being enamored of the system.
While the international community debates what to do about Zimbabwe, while several things have been tried, e.g. a UN resolution, and many feel helpless about the human suffering, it could be that a software license may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But more importantly perhaps, given the interconnectedness of the multitude of economic factors that makes up a given country’ economic life, it makes one aware of the fact that little things can bring down governments.
Despite ongoing talks between the two political parties, if–probably when–Mugabe’s government’s falls, there will be many explanations. Still one will be left wondering about that old story about David and Goliath, of how a software license kept a government from running.