Travel, Politics, and Tending the Mote In Our Eye
I don’t vote.
I don’t vote, because I think the system is evolving, and the only way for it to evolve into something good and worthwhile is for people to keep making mistakes. We have to repeat painful errors enough times until we decide to change the system. Meanwhile, we have to continue to live with the consequences of not changing the system, and I choose not to participate in that system until people have finally learned.
Traveling to the East as I have frequently of late, I have been able to observe different political systems at work. At first it was easy to criticize: Singapore has a totalitarian regime, a dictator for life who seems immortal. China has Communism, and we know about Communism from our cold war with the Soviet Union. Other places have other systems.
It is easy to want to agitate for freedom, and more difficult to see the good done by these systems. Singaporeans, for example, have a national identity despite strong ethnic ties—Malays and Chinese and Arabs, primarily—sharing space. The government orders them to live together rather than creating ethnic quarters, because they know living together is a step away from prejudice and insularity.
Could we ever order something like that here? Desegregating the schools was enough trouble, with armed guards necessary to enforce the law. What if we said there was no more segregation of neighborhoods, that each neighborhood had to meet racial quotas? This might prove very dangerous for us, although it works quite well in Singapore.
In Egypt, the people rose up against a dictator, and fairly and democratically elected a far-right Muslim party official to govern them. Given the chance to vote for more freedom, they chose instead to continue the religious traditions of their time and place, including the oppression of women.
Again, it would be easy to criticize. On the other hand, politicians more locally want a set of bills and amendments that look not much different from the laws the Muslim Brotherhood will enact overseas.
The Chinese government is undeniably corrupt; most of the deaths in their 2008 earthquake can be laid at the feet of corrupt officials who took bribes to overlook shoddy construction. But how well does our own government hold up under scrutiny when it comes to corruption? Many of the bills entering law were written by lobbyists, and our byzantine tax code is designed specifically to include favors to donors.
Also, China’s record on human rights is a matter of international concern, yet nobody applies pressure on the United States to free any of our more than 2.2 million prisoners. Many of these prisoners are incarcerated for unevenly applied drug laws which target black Americans; how is this any different from the ethnic cleansings Americans complain about elsewhere in the world?
Students sometimes ask me the difference between humanistic and existential psychology. I am hard pressed to answer: the two belief systems overlap almost completely, and have grown more similar over time. If one thing stands out, it is that existentialists are more careful to consider the capacity for human evil. That is, given perfect conditions, some people will choose not to grow to meet their fullest potential, at least not in socially sanctioned ways. Some people will choose to remain small, mean, or unfree. Given the choice, some will choose slavery over liberation, self over community, hostility over peacefulness, suicide over the chance to struggle gamely on.
An existential view of foreign governments must contain this eye to how people choose not to change as we might want and, as we observe this internationally, it can help us reflect on our own broken political system. Before we try to impose American-style democracy on other countries, we first need a deep and searching look at our own democracy and its current health.
These lessons will come, as all lessons, only with time and suffering.
-- Jason Dias