When Democracy Fails

"[T]hose who raise such demands apparently do not see that this would be the end of the individual's moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by tribalistic taboos and by the totalitarian irresponsibility of the individual. Against this whole attitude, the individualist must maintain that the morality of states (if there is any such thing) tends to be considerably lower than that of the average citizen, so that it is much more desirable that the morality of the state should be controlled by the citizens than the opposite. What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals." -- The Open Society and Its Enemies, Sir Karl Popper (1943)

A common misconception is the idea that the Americans invented democracy.

In actual fact, a democratic system was practiced in ancient Greece. To be sure, it didn't bear much resemblance to the Western nations we're familiar with today, but there was certainly the notion of "Government by the people, for the people" -- Except the people who were slaves, of course. You see, that's the other common misconception about democracy: The idea that it has anything whatsoever to do with "freedom".

In the 1700's, the idea of Democracy for England spread through the British underground press. The aristocracy didn't like the idea very much, and punished certain dissidents for spreading their message a bit more vocally than The Establishment could accept, but there was discussion in educated circles about how it might work.

The consensus: It wouldn't. To summarize the prevailing view (i.e.: the view held by the guys with the prisons and gallows), democracy could never work because there isn't a whole lot of difference between an angry mob with weapons and attitude expressing their violent disapproval towards a smaller, weaker group, and a majority-elected government with weapons and attitude expressing its violent disapproval towards small, weak minority groups.

Their objection is an idea with some merit, and we've seen it played out for real in our society for centuries: If you're a member of a group which the voting majority doesn't like, laws get passed against you, the Government discriminates against you, and the justice system treats you like a dissident.

If you don't believe this could happen in Australia, I ask you to consider what it has been like throughout our two centuries of history to be a homosexual (gays have been jailed in every state of the land until the 70's -- or the 90's for Tasmania -- and property laws discriminate against them to this very day). Or a minority religious group (Hari Krishnas are banned from the streets of most of our cities, yet christians have every right to stand on street corners shouting salvation at the top of their lungs; There have been blasphemy laws against paganism for most of our history). Or a woman (before women were given the vote virtually every sphere of public life discriminated against them; some spheres still do). Or someone who has descended into poverty due to drug abuse (are you suffering a health problem? We'll never know, because health researchers don't often visit the kind of prisons you'll be spending your life in).

Mobs are brutal. The fact that a mob has democratically elected the person who stands in front of the crowd with the flag doesn't make it any less of a mob.

Returning to the progression: democracy didn't work out very well in Britain in the 1700's. But somewhat against the wishes of the British aristocracy, a mob of a different kind was getting violent a few thousand miles away in the American Colonies.

The Americans had a unique opportunity to form their own system of government when the British were thrown out, and they picked a modified form of democracy to achieve what they thought would be the best of possible worlds. The thing that has prevented their democracy from collapsing into the civilized equivalent of a violent mob, however, is the modifications they made to the theoretical "for the people, by the people" majority rules system. Given recent events some might suggest that their modifications didn't go far enough to prevent their descent into barbarism, but that's perhaps beyond the scope of this discussion.

The US system has modifications to make it decidedly non-democratic. Let's examine a couple of them:

The system doesn't always work -- American slavery, for example, probably represents one of the more high-profile failures. The Supreme Court has often "interpreted" the bill of rights in a way which has weakened or strengthened various parts of it, too. By and large, however, it has meant that the US system of government has been one of the most tolerant in the world, and where it isn't tolerant the Supreme Court enforces toleration.

But what happens in a country which doesn't have those checks and balances?

Or, to put it another way, what happens in Australia?

I've already provided examples of mob rule through Australia's history. Thankfully, though, things have been changing. It's probably fair to say that children who are born in 1999 are more liberal in their attitudes towards homosexuality, feminism and alternative religion than their parents. That's the problem, though: It means those children are the new minority. When the mob asserts its iron-fisted rule over the wishes of the minorities of today, the easiest minority target is the young.

In order to be a successful politician in this country, statistics indicate that you have to be a part of a previous generation. You need to appeal to the majority, and there are more people in Australia over 25 than under 25. It's probably also better to have leaders who have seen more of the world and who have more considered, less impulsive views.

However, the immediate negative implication from that is that Australian politics always has a built-in generation gap. The social consequences of this are immense: For most of Australia's history, the Government of the day has been ignorant at best, downright hostile at worst, towards the next generation.

In the '40s there were swingers. In the '60s there were hippies and a young generation which couldn't even begin to understand the wars we were fighting. In the '90s we've seen unprecedented attacks on youth, from everyone from popular media to the political machine itself. Vast political turmoil has been created by any number of younger groups pitted against an inflexible, conservative and often obsolete "Establishment" class.

In the '50s Elvis Presley music was threatened with bans because it was considered overtly sexual and dangerous to society by the ruling generation. In the '60s it was the Beatles. In the '80s it was virtually any heavy metal. In the '90s it's Goth Industrial music or Marilyn Manson.

Did society fall to its knees under the influence of Elvis? No. Will it survive Marilyn Manson? Of course.

In the '60s it was Cannabis. In the '70s it was Disco. In the '80s it was Dungeons and Dragons and violent TV programmes. In the '90s it's computer games and the Internet.

Did society survive the Disco Revolution? Absolutely. Is it likely that we'll look back over our shoulder in 20 years time and see a manifestly obvious negative trend begin in the same year that Quake was released? No, we'll look back and think the hysteria surrounding it was bizarre. Statistics show that despite the influence of violent media, the children of today are less than 30% as likely to be involved in violent crime as their parents were at the same age. But if you're angry at young people, don't let that injection of facts interrupt your hysteria...

Moral standards change over time; So does culture. 30 years ago the book by D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, was banned by Menzies as an obscene publication, and it's author was charged with "Conspiracy to corrupt public morals". Today it's taught in every year 10 English class.

The politicians of today are hell-bent on the 1990's equivalent of banning Lady Chatterley's Lover. They've seen evil in the Internet, and they are fully intent on passing enough censorious, restrictive, draconian and repressive regulations to quell that evil -- In exactly the same way that Menzies banned Lady Chatterley's Lover because it wasn't the kind of book he wanted his wife reading.

The fortunate individuals who jumped past the censor in the 60's and snuck a peek at Lady Chatterley's Lover would have immediately lost all respect for their Government's moral decisions: It was obvious to anyone who actually read the book that consuming its pages would never turn anyone into a raving sex-maniac. In exactly the same way, it's obvious to every young user of the Internet that they are in no danger whatsoever from sexual material they don't want to see, nor will they turn into axe-wielding murderers from playing too much Quake.

Every time a politician denigrates youth culture, the credibility of the entire political process is weakened. Put yourself in the shoes of a Quake player who is told that playing Quake is dangerous: He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it isn't dangerous, and ignorance is the only reason anyone could ever have for saying that it is. Ditto for Marilyn Manson, Gothic under-culture, and the Internet. Is that person likely to respect his attacker?

As the young people of today grow older, they're going to look back on their youth and think about how absurd their elders' reactions to their culture really were. Then they're going to get elected into Government and make exactly the same stupid mistakes about the generation that follows.

Democracy is going horribly, horribly wrong in Australia. The generation of Australians euphemistically known as "young people" are being discriminated against in the most brutal of fashions, by having their culture, their identity, and the things they enjoy the most utterly demonized by the press, TV, radio, and virtually everyone else who doesn't like the same music, play the same computer games, or surf the same web-sites. Is it sane and rational to turn perfectly normal children into outcasts by so aggressively disapproving of their culture?

This time, however, it's worse - much worse. Despite the talk, nobody actually banned Beatles music in the '60s. Even though Elvis' thrusting hips were lewd and dangerous to public morals, he wasn't banned either. But the Government of today wants to make certain Internet content against the law, and that is so underhandedly evil it staggers the imagination.

Young people are being told that the Internet is a dangerous cesspool, and, for their own protection, parts of it will be legally exorcised. Young people, on the other hand, know with absolute clarity that those who are foaming at the mouth with moral indignation are crazy, and that there's absolutely nothing out there that they actually need protection from. And history, with pathetic examples such as Lady Chatterley's Lover, is prone to prove them correct.

This isn't just a "medium", like TV or radio -- The Internet is a culture. To thunder into it with all guns blazing and, without making any attempt to understand, banning the bits you don't like, is an act which is roughly akin to banning the religious practices of Aboriginal people following colonization. History will look back on these laws with horror at the deeply damaging effect they will have had on the country's future, not only by killing a vibrant industry, but by telling an entire generation of Australians that their culture is something that can be made illegal.

The British were right all along, and, true to their prophecy, democracy is failing us. The mob is upon us; We are now truly being ruled by fear, ignorance, insensitivity, cultural brutality and populist appeal.

Every person in a position of power has a huge task ahead of them to ensure that their place in the history books will be under "J" for "justice" instead of "D" for "despot." Every politician who is voting on an Internet censorship bill needs to use their benefit of hindsight to think about the utterly bizarre way that new developments in media were viewed in the past. Every member of parliament should be thinking, "Do I want to be remembered as someone who was small-minded enough to perform the 1990s equivalent of banning D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, James Joyce, E.M Forster and Judy Blume, or do I want to be remembered as a forward-looking defender of cultural diversity bringing a statesman-like message of tolerance to the irrational, hostile and closed-minded mob?"

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999 is rapidly approaching a vote in the House of Representatives. I anxiously await your answer to that question; May your future credibility be colored by the courage or cowardice of the position you choose to take.

Mark Newton
2 May 1999

Back to the senate quagmire.