As democracy faces threats, supporters bet on its resilience

this is an article from World Review: State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.


This year’s Athens Democracy Forum was held the ninth in the Greek capital, and with each passing year, the power of authoritarian governments, the effects of climate change, growing inequalities in wealth, the effects of aggressive technology, and more have sounded the alarm. Huge population displacement. Recently, concerns about the state of American democracy and a global pandemic have deepened the despair.

Stacey Abrams, an American political activist from Georgia and one of the speakers on stage last week, said the most terrifying thing is “when democracy becomes the launching pad of its own demise.”

Ms. Abrams’ experience has been in the United States, where former President Donald J. Trump and his followers are calling for election laws in some states to be changed in their favor. But the context applies equally to populists in countries such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey or the Philippines, who have perpetrated the sinister vision of “foreign agents” by controlling the news media, manipulating the rules and safeguards of democratic institutions, or They have sought to destroy democratic processes. “Terrorists,” drug dealers or “radical socialists” hide behind the opposition.

Many discussions in the forum, a three-day event in collaboration with The New York Times, focused on the power of the Internet and social media. Estonia’s president Tomas Hendrik Ilves, who led his small nation to become one of the world’s most digitally savvy nations, said his biggest fear now was the rise of “deep fakes”, according to a false video. The ability of bad actors to make – let’s say showing a politician taking a bribe – is indistinguishable from the real thing.

“It strikes at the empiricist basis of democracy,” said Mr. Ilves. “You can no longer believe your senses. You don’t believe in anything anymore.”

For British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appia, this is the intent of the lies fed by populists. “Russian propaganda, it has often been observed, works not because we believe it, but because it creates a more generalized distrust, such as calling any news ‘fake news’, even can be dismissed as truth,” he said. According to Israeli historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari, an even more dangerous tool of dictatorship lies in artificial intelligence, or AI, which promises dictators the ability to satisfy their greed to know and control everything. does. about their subjects.

However, the value of forums in Athens is not just in identifying crises. He constantly shouts at people from big and small screen. The value is in discovering that Myanmar has people like YY Nu, the 34-year-old founder of the Women’s Peace Network, who received the Athens Democracy Award this year; Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, self-exiled Belarusian opposition leader; and Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and activist – who understands that democracy requires constant attention and sacrifice. He was the face of “resilience and renewal”, the key words of this year’s stage.

Battlefield, many participants agreed, believed. The role of faith in politics is not self-evident, declared Mr. Appia, who writes a moralist column for The New York Times magazine. American democracy was largely devised by the Founding Fathers to avoid relying entirely on trust by creating checks and balances through democratic institutions. He quoted Thomas Jefferson: “So in questions of power, let faith in man be heard no more, but be chained to mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Still, Mr. Appia said, “vertical trust” – citizens’ trust in institutions – is essential if people are going to hand over their government to others. And this trust is being eroded, partly by the “nonsensical crazy narrative” circulated through the new digital media. The answer, Mr Appia said, could be quite simple: “The elite need to work harder to gain popular trust, and speak the truth more often, even if it is uncomfortable and complicated.”

But what if these same elites are determined to undermine the faith? Mr Trump has been accused of doing so by treating any reports that do not serve his interests as “fake news” or of his political enemies challenging his credibility such as “Sleepy Joe” or “Lynn Hillary”. give nicknames to. A “false democracy” promulgated by Myanmar’s ruling military, Ms Nu, a member of the Rohingya minority who has been systematically harassed by generals, amounts to “waging war against her own people”.

In these competitions with strong men, faith becomes the weapon of the weak, declared Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who after imprisoning her husband, the former dictator of Belarus, Alexander G. Raised the banner of protest against Lukashenko. The power of the autocrat is in fear, she said, but when the subdued finally hit the streets, they learn the power of mutual trust. “Who is stronger,” he asked, “those who trust each other, or those who act out of fear?”

The answer may not always be clear, but history, Mr Harari argues, favors democracy. Autocratic governance has distinct advantages in rapid decision-making and channeling of resources, but lacks the flexibility to adapt and change when the “demo”, the public can no longer tolerate dictatorship. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, for example, was smart enough to recognize that the Soviet system needed to change, but he failed to appreciate that rules based on fear were once a fantasy. was removed.

In contrast, Mr. Harari noted that the 1968 uprisings seemed to present an existential challenge to Western democracies at the time, but in fact they proved to be an outlet for discontent that enabled democracies to emerge stronger and better. . “When society changes, democracy changes,” said Hong Zhou, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

How societies and democracies emerge from the current crises is impossible to predict. It is certain that they will change. The turmoil in the Middle East is not over yet; Authoritarians are still in control in countries from South America to Asia; The ice is melting as the planet warms; And history shows that every pandemic has a lasting effect.

But an optimistic sign, many participants agreed, was that leaders such as Ms. Abrams, Ms. Nu and Ms. Tikhanovskaya stood ready to fight for democracy with young people, many of whom in Athens spoke about building a better world. and civil society organizations working on democratic solutions, some of which were also represented on the stage.

Democracy, as he and other participants declared, remains the most likely form of human organization, with the ability to meet the ever-changing challenges of human fragility, technological advances and environmental degradation – the “mother of all crises”, as that one speaker said. .

But democracy will not function without help. Future student Mr. Harari, whose best-selling books include “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, declared that meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow, including the rise of artificial intelligence, in all its moral and ethical The implications are involved, requiring answers not only from engineers but also from philosophers, poets and artists.

“An artist who is not an activist is a bad artist,” declared Mr. Ai, whose works are a bold commentary on Chinese political and social issues. Maybe they expanded it to include every citizen who values ​​democracy.

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