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Democracy 101

I am a "friend" of the United States. I've visited it frequently over the years and have always had good experiences. By and large, the people are friendly and polite. I feel completely at home.

Okay, there was one exception. On our last trip, in 2000, to the midwest, we met up with a gentleman who was traveling by motorcycle. He asked us what we thought about Canada's new gun laws. To be honest, we didn't really know much about the new gun laws, so we sort of "hummed and hawed" and he went on anyway. He was unhappy. He was no longer going to travel to Canada if he couldn't take a gun with him. Now, it probably is a little risky to go traveling and camping with just a motorcycle, but I hardly think anyone needs a gun, especially in Canada. (Not that we don't have crime, but campers have been, so far, very safe.)

Anyway, that anecdote serves to point out that there is something of a different mentality (in general) between Canadians and Americans. Not much, but there is a slightly different view. Most Canadians, I believe, support any legislation that gets guns off the streets. Most Americans, apparently, do not. I have never owned a gun. Never fired a gun. Never even, to my knowledge, held a gun. And I'm perfectly happy to keep it that way.

Over the past few days and weeks, three events have occurred that affect me deeply. They reflect, I believe, some of the worst characteristics of humanity - and they fly in the face of what the "coalition" is attempting to do in Iraq and democracy in general. So, here comes my "Democracy Primer".

Of the three events, One is fictional, but still, I fear, representative of a trend. The other two are real events: one garnered far too much publicity, while the other, as far as I know, garnered no publicity at all - but should have.

Lesson One: Innocent until proven guilty. The British, Canadian, and American justice systems are based on the assumption of innocence. I'm not sure how prevalent this philosophy is worldwide, but I'm sure societies and countries still exist that presume guilt. We believe that it is better to release one guilty man than to punish an innocent. That's because we believe in the sanctity of life. We believe each life is precious and should be preserved. America has an unfortunate history of "forgetting" this precept when it pleases those with power. Of course, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction (at least for a regular guy like me), but frontier vigilante justice often dispensed with a trial (or so I believe). Such disregard for the law and human rights is certainly not limited to any one country, it's just that we tend to hear more about real and imagined cases thanks to America's powerful media machine. The fictional example took place on the popular TV program 24. A trio of "thugs" come across a man they assume is Arabic and proceed to beat him to death. The irony is that he is working for his country trying to stop the American president from starting an unjust war against innocent countries. But these goons won't listen. If he's Arab (insert any racial group here), he's bad. Kill him. What a terrible point of view. I know it's fiction, but I suspect (and there is considerable, if not quite so dramatic evidence) that more than a few Americans would act in much the same way. Everyone deserves his or her day in court. It is one of our most important and cherished freedoms. It can never be trampled upon.

Lesson Two: What is Democracy? After the 2000 presidential election, it should be obvious to everyone that even in a democracy, the leader seldom speaks for more than a bare majority of the people - and often only a minority. That's not to say that the people don't rally around their leader when necessary, but it does mean that the leader represents only one opinion, and not necessarily the majority opinion.

France and Germany's leaders opposed forcing the U.N. to make a decision about Iraq. I think that was wrong. The U.N. should be the world's policeman, not the United States or any other single nation (or coalition of nations). But under the U.N.'s current charter, that is all but impossible. Nevertheless, it is the defacto court of world opinion. It placed sanctions against Iraq for Iraq's leader's refusal to disarm and allow meaningful inspections. If, after twelve years or so, Sadam had still not conformed to world opinion, the U.N. should have acted. Unfortunately, the evidence the U.S. brought to the U.N. was less than overwhelming, it was not even, apparently, persuasive. France and Germany's leaders may have been wrong, but they no doubt believed what they were doing was right. Renaming "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" is amusing, but is certainly an over reaction to an honest difference of opinion. Worse, an unofficial ban on French products is harming not only French citizens, but some U.S. businesses as well.

Canada's Prime Minister announced that, since the upcoming war was not sanctioned by the U.N., Canada would not be participating in the coalition. A perfectly valid position. In essence he said "What you are proposing to do is (very close to, if not) illegal. I will not take part in an illegal action." He may have spoken on Canada's behalf, but he did not necessarily reflect the opinion of the majority of Canadians. I know of no one who would be violently opposed to Canada's participation in the coalition. In fact, I am probably the most reticent, and even I would have supported Canada's participation. I would have preferred more conclusive proof of "weapons of mass destruction". I would have preferred U.N. approval. I do not understand why President Bush needed to rush into war the way he did. I believe that the diplomatic efforts were not completely dead. But I certainly did not want to see another Chamberlain fiasco, so, in the final analysis, I would have supported the coalition.

One of my wife's colleagues at work told her about a friend who recently vacationed in the United States. They had their car's paint "keyed"; they received shoddy service at hotels and even some gas stations refused to serve them, all because their car bore Canadian licence plates. That's simply "un-American".

Lesson Three: Freedom of speech is sacrosanct. One of America's (and Canada's) basic freedoms is the freedom of speech. The right to say what you think in public without fear of retaliation - except in debate. Obviously, such rights come with responsibilities: if you say something negative about a person or institution, you'd better have some facts to back it up. Such rights may also be tempered by the rights of others and good, common sense. There is an on-going debate over whether or not the freedom of speech is absolute or whether someone has the right to say that some topics (such as "hate" propaganda) are off-limits. But in a democracy the freedom of speech must be taken seriously. It is not only our right to speak our mind, it is our responsibility. If we are opposed to some action, we should give voice to our beliefs. It is not just a right, it is an obligation.

A few weeks ago, just before the war began, I believe, one of the Dixie Chicks, in a concert in Britain, said something to the effect that she was ashamed that President Bush came from Texas. The implication was that she was opposed to the upcoming war against Iraq. One may argue over her exact words, (she has recently apologized for the wording she used), and one may also object to her using her public fame to spread her message (although I hardly thing a few words blurted out during a concert should count), but no one should object to her right, her obligation, to say what she believes. I've heard that some radio stations have stopped playing their records, and that some idiotic fans are destroying their CD's. You can disagree with her position, but you must defend her right to say it. Taking offense at someone's honest comments is childish. That's not what democracy is all about.

There are two quotes that come to mind at this point. One of the worst slogans ever devised is "My country right or wrong." Not that the sentiment, itself, is wrong, but the interpretation that is usually applied. One may love one's country even if it makes the wrong decision - that's right and proper. What is not right and proper is to defend that wrong decision, to support it, to perpetuate the wrong. Soldiers may, to a point, have to obey orders they do not necessarily agree with; ordinary citizens do not. Those citizens who actively opposed the war, did so (hopefully) because they honestly believed their country's actions were wrong. They were not only exercising their rights, but their obligations. I must confess I looked down on some of these demonstrators. I was wrong to do so. The other quote (which I am most likely paraphrasing) is "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That is the quote we should all live by. It's not always easy. It is difficult, sometimes, to believe and accept that opposing your country's actions is being patriotic in the highest sense (assuming you oppose on the basis of good conscience and not for some base reason). Blindly accepting what your leaders do is the surest way to destroy democracy. In the final analysis, A nation is only as strong as the ideas and ideals that underlie it.

Life in a democratic country is not simple. You'll lose at least as often as you'll win. "Democracy isn't easy, you have to want it bad." (from The American President)

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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