• Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Stress test for democracy

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The old American children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But names will never hurt me” may well hold the clue to the essential nature and meaning of democracy. Because the central concept here is “tolerance.” Again and again, we find that the difference between systems of government revolves on the degree to which the operators of each system can tolerate or accommodate “difference”—different views, different beliefs, different styles, and, by extension, different race, ethnicity (tribe), language, culture.

To state it another way, one of the tests of democracy is the ability of its operators to withstand (tolerate) scorn, insult, badmouth or satire targeted at them by citizens.

It is in this sense that America may be called an “exemplary democracy.” In America, nothing at all, and no one, dead or alive, is protected from public disapprobation, scorn and laughter. And no legal price is paid for badmouthing—the law permits none except retaliation in kind. All of American life and history is grist for the comedians’ mill and the factory of insults: the stand-up comics of the nightclubs, television late-night hosts, cartoonists, op-ed pundits, movie makers, loony-right radio bullies and assorted buccaneers all have a field day roasting the country’s president, the past presidents, the country’s Founding Fathers together with their Puritan ancestors and the natives whom they butchered, the powerful politicians past and present, the super-rich, the poor, and even their own grandmothers. Nothing at all is so sacred that it cannot be desecrated or called to question by word or picture.

But no, the law does not permit you to touch (deface or damage) a church, synagogue, mosque, statue or any other public or private property. Freedom has a huge latitude, but even in America (though some would dearly wish it were otherwise) freedom is not limitless. And yes, the law permits you to poke fun publicly at the lame, deaf, dumb, blind, insane or other disabled, or at persons of other ethnicities, religions or sexual orientations—but in the last few decades it’s come to be regarded as uncivil, gauche, barbaric, “politically incorrect” and “simply not done.”

In England they have a “Speakers Corner,” a spot on the public park where freedom of speech is unlimited—the only such place outside

the meeting halls of Parliament. But in America the entire country is a “Speakers Corner”!

At the other end of the tolerance spectrum is a dictatorship (totalitarian, autocratic, tyrannical, high-handed government): it is by nature intolerant of anything different or opposed to itself. It does not take kindly to laughter or scorn; it recognizes, welcomes and rewards only sycophants, flatterers, praise singers and yes-men. It arrests, detains, imprisons, tortures and murders those who have a different view on anything. Making fun of the system or laughing at its operators is regarded as pernicious and treasonable as planning a coup d’etat or hatching a plot for the system’s overthrow.

Nigeria’s military rulers of those days had a habit of boastfully reminding the public from time to time that “this is not a democracy.” Once they said that, they considered themselves justified in whatever violation of citizen rights they were minded to commit. Journalists (professional “loudmouths” inclined neither to fear nor favor) were their particular nemesis: they were detained (and sometimes publicly humiliated and whipped) when those in power did not like what they wrote or said. If no cartoonist was ever so harshly visited, it is probably because the persecutors either did not understand cartoons or thought them beneath contempt.

When an era of military tyranny ends, noxious fumes of its violent and intolerant culture linger in the air, disorienting the operators of the new would-be democratic system. During the Second Republic, which would turn out to be nothing but a civilian interlude of four years and three months between military dictatorships, the then Senate President boldly proposed that journalists be whipped whenever they “spoke out of turn.”

The present civilian dispensation (some call it the Third, some the Fourth Republic if you count the three months civilian holding action between the abdication of the one and the ascension of the next and worst military dictator) has so far lasted 13 years; no one knows how much longer it will last. In any case, there has been at least one “whipping governor”; several violent clashes with road users who refuse to be driven off the road by a governor’s convoy-in-a-hurry; and the detention and manhandling of a musician (one of Fela’s professional children, no doubt) for “offensive lyrics” criticizing the government’s failure to reconstruct the roads in the state’s leading commercial city.

Further north on the continent, in Egypt, a popular comedian is under indictment for poking fun at the country’s president. To tighten the rope around his neck, he is also accused of denigrating Islam—for the reason that the president is a Moslem. . . . 

 

ONWUCHEKWA JEMIE

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Jemie is the Editor-in-Chief of BusinessDay