Thursday, April 16, 2009

Read me speaking Finnish

Last month I was contacted and interviewed by Juha Rudanko representing the Finnish print/online journal Kumppani, for a special issue on democracy, which is now out in both electronic and hardcopy form. The issue and the article which my interview contributed to are now out. If you'd like to see how I might speak in Finnish if I knew the language, go here. The original interview with Rudanko is below.

Image: a Finnish woman votes in an early parliamentary election (1906?) .

Interview (March 5, 2009):

1. What are the most important examples of democracy in the history of non-Western societies? Is there anything comparable to ancient Athens?

In part the answer to this question depends on what you mean by democracy.
Greek democracy in some ways seems much less democratic than the regimes in
modern democratic states, because so many residents, slaves and people of
foreign origin, not to mention women, were permanently excluded from the political
process. Greek democracy was called that because the ordinary or poorer male
citizens were involved in decision-making and the execution of the laws, and
if the involvement of male citizens is a measure of democracy, Athens for a few
generations was more democratic than modern states. Taking the Greek measure of
democracy, there are many independent and semi-independent small states in history
that qualify. Among them are the Indian republics from the time of the Buddha to
about the time of Alexander the Great. There is plenty of both Indian and Greek
testimony to show that they were numerous Indian republics with democratic
constitutions about the time when democracy was widespread in ancient

2. What is the significance of recognizing democratic traditions in non-Western
societies? Does such a recognition have political implications today (ie.,
countering the notion that advocating democracy in non-Western countries
is an imposition of Western values)?

Recognizing democratic traditions worldwide is important for the same reason
that studying world history impartially is important. The story world history
has been told for at least couple of centuries as if all the virtues of humanity
were concentrated in one region of the world arbitrarily designated as "the West." Every writer or speaker who invokes the West does so so that he or she can claim
to represent everything good in human culture, simply because certain books are
theoretically taught in the better schools of his or her country. That is why
you will never get a consistent and sensible definition of what is the West and
what is not the West. In regards to democracy, no one gets to claim it for their
own unless they actually implement democracy in daily life, both official life
and unofficial social interaction. It doesn't matter whether your high school
teacher read Thucydides or mentioned his history your history class,
it matters what you are doing now, whether you have honest, effective
elections, transparency in government, civilian control of the military, etc. Put it another way: Finns at the beginning of the 20th century were among the
first not only to implement women's suffrage but to elect women to governmental
posts on the quasi-state level (as a result of the revolution in 1905). Do you
think many people outside of Finland are aware of this? Don’t you think that
someone really interested in how democracy develops and thrives ought to be
interested in the Finnish case? And does it matter in the slightest whether
Finland was Western or Eastern in 1905-7, either in the eyes of contemporaries
or in the minds of scholars today? The same principle applies to looking at
democratic and quasi-democratic traditions wherever they exist, or have existed
in the past. Endlessly rehashing the French Revolution (fascinating as it is)
will not teach us everything we need to know about the human possibility of

3. The history of democracy is conventionally told in terms of ancient Athens
and the evolution of liberal thinking in Western Europe from the 17th century
onwards, culminating in the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. What do you
think of the conventional story? How would you tell the story of democracy?

The conventional story referred to is a perfect example of what James Blaut called
"tunnel history." This is the idea that nations or cultures move through history
in hermetically sealed tunnels which keep them from interacting with each other in
any essential way. The idea that we owe modern democracy to the Athenians or the
Greeks ignores the vast differences between Athenian institutions and the medieval
and early modern institutions that led to European and North American democratic
regimes. Efforts to democratize European culture have involved adapting medieval
institutions, such as the English Parliament, which originated in an era when even
the greatest English scholars knew next to nothing about the details of Athenian
life in the age of Pericles. Since the details have become widely known again,
Athens has served as an inspiration for thinking about the virtues and vices of
democracy, and plenty of people have taken the case of Athens as a bad example,
a terrible warning. An honest person has to admit that the record is ambiguous. If we think that democracy is an important aspect of human political life -- and
it is hard to argue against it even if you disapprove of democracy -- and if you
have a world view that truly takes in the whole world, historical study of democracy
should involve systematic investigation of attempts by various actors to make
government more open and inclusive, and how well or badly such efforts have worked
out, and why. This involves using an approach that is almost anthropological in
its orientation, but there are plenty of historians who use anthropological insights. There are already paleoanthropologists doing useful work in the evolution of human society and its relationship to modern political ideas and practices. Finally, there should be less isolated discussion of democracy in country X or democracy in country Y, and more efforts to see how democratic ideas and strategies move across conventional boundaries. How can one understand the events of 1989-91 without such an orientation?

4. Have the ancient democratic traditions in non-Western countries had an impact
on democracy in the 20th century? For instance, were the ancient republics of
India an inspiration for democracy in India after independence?

This is well documented in the case of India. Foreign scholars in the 19th century
tended to see Indian history as static, and the Indian political tradition as
entirely dominated by ahistorical ideas of caste with Oriental despotism
superimposed. This visualization supported the idea that Indians needed an
arbitrary (colonial) government to tell them what to do, and that it would be a
long time before such inapt students could learn to govern themselves. Thus when
scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, discovered in the sources that like Greece
India had its ancient republics, it was a big deal. This took place around 1900-20,
and among other things inspired one strain of Indian nationalism. In more recent
decades, the study of ancient Indian institutions of all sorts has been less
involved in actively promoting modern ideology, but as this very diverse political
community debates its democratic experience and future, this may be changing.

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