Different Yet Similar



Capitalist countries at relatively the same stage of development are pretty similar. They all think themselves democratic, yet only a handful are. Money talks more loudly in some places than other, but everywhere if it’s not shouting it’s at least mumbling in the background. Supposedly communist countries like Russia, Vietnam, Laos and China have some of the greatest disparities of wealth of any country, and no one is shocked by the special privileges enjoyed by the super rich.

There are many places in the world that do not entertain notions of the right to free speech. Asian countries put a lot more value on honoring and respecting your superiors than do western ones. Here in Thailand, discourse is suspect and debate is considered sedition. You can’t really have much of a democracy in a setting like that. You can call yourself a democracy. The “Peoples Democratic Republic of…” but Dear Leader always gets ninety-nine percent of the vote.

Everybody claims to value education, but what they mean by that varies from place to place. In many places teachers are expected to be autocratic. No Socratic discussions allowed. Student opinions are neither encouraged nor valued.

As writer Ivan Illich pointed out in his book Deschooling Society, “With very rare exceptions, the university graduate from a poor country feels more comfortable with his North American and European colleagues than with his nonschooled compatriots, and all students are academically processed to be happy only in the company of fellow consumers of the products of the educational machine. The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders.”

It’s not education that we prize, but the stability of the power structure. We claim to exalt in freedom, but we work hard to deny it to those who deeply threaten the status quo. This is not just true of advanced, capitalist economies. They are simply better at hiding the true motives of the power elite, and corruption is less obvious, though no less prevalent than in banana republics or obvious dictatorships.


Democracy is Rare to Non-Existent


I live in Thailand, a country whose last government was abruptly dissolved by a military coup. The current prime minister is the general who led the coup. When he learned that tourists would find their travel insurance voided by staying in a country under military rule, he had the parliament filled with yes-men and members of the military, who quickly elected him prime minister. He promised elections would come as soon as possible, but that was four and a half years ago.

Is the United States a democracy? Hard to tell. How about Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil. Guess it depends on whom you talk to. I would be more comfortable describing northern European countries as democracies than most African, Asian or Latin American countries. Money talks everywhere, but in some places it fairly screams.

The idea behind Democracy was a noble one. One person, one vote. Anybody could rise the top and be elected to high office. In the United States, it costs approximately twenty-five million dollars to secure a seat in the Senate. Senators earn $175,000 a year. Makes you wonder who they’re working for.

Maybe we should stop pretending and get real. We like to use the word terrorist to describe groups of people who don’t have well-equipped standing armies. We give Israel three and a half billion dollars a year in military aid. The Palestinians throw rocks. Guess whom we call terrorists?