Feb. 14, 2011

'Enemies of democracy' don't protect 'negative liberties,' like we do, says speaker

Be it religious radicalism, populism or the Chinese state model, such "enemies of democracy" are worldviews that don't value protecting liberties or find ways to resolve pluralistic views nonviolently, said Ian Buruma, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, Feb. 10, as an Einaudi Center Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker.

Faced with these kinds of enemies, people may be "losing their nerve" to defend liberal democracy, said Buruma to a full audience in Kaufmann Auditorium.

Buruma was quick to distance himself, however, from talk of China as "our enemy," but noted that "there is something about the Chinese model that is ... a problem for liberal democracy."

Unlike the Soviet model, which was a clear failure in most Westerners' eyes, "the economic success of the Chinese model cannot be doubted," Buruma said. But he warned that before looking at Chinese economic growth and concluding that strong, centralized management by the state is better than [our messy system, we should carefully consider the socio-political foundations of the Chinese model. Chinese success, explained Buruma, rests on a bargain between the government and the flourishing middle class. The state, it is tacitly agreed, guarantees order, well-being, continued prosperity, and even some private liberties for the prosperous middle class, he said. In exchange, it is expected that the Chinese economic elite will relinquish the freedom to demand social and political reform.

Democratic liberalism, on the other hand, involves a balancing act between enforcing such negative liberties as "the liberty to be left alone" and such positive liberties as "the liberty to take collective action to improve society." The Chinese model tosses out such positive liberties entirely. Moreover, a liberal democratic society finds "reasonable" and nonviolent solutions to resolve disagreements about how best to balance both types of liberties. These liberties and the methods of conflict resolution are at the heart of democratic liberalism, said Buruma, so its enemies are much more than just dictators.

Buruma also singled out religious radicalism and populism as enemies of democracy. Religious radicalism conflates political authority with religious authority. Populism, in its current American form, rejects government enforcement of positive liberties, and in its European form, tends toward xenophobia.

None of these three "enemies," in essence, recognizes pluralism, Buruma said. "They don't recognize that there are legitimately different interests and values" in the same society. What they envisage as an ideal, he added, is a society based on "commonality."

As for dealing with "enemies" that do not tolerate diverse ideologies, Buruma was clear that "we must not fight kind with kind." There should be no "war with Islam," for instance, or any political enforcement of our "Western values" -- if there even were such a thing, he mused.

Conflicts over values are part and parcel of our liberal democracies, he said, and immigration especially has always accentuated such challenges in any society. Nonetheless, commented Buruma, we must safeguard the liberty of immigrants to adhere to their traditional religious values, even publicly.

Our democratic liberalism should also, he said, go so far as to be "tolerant of intolerance," an unpopular view today, acknowledged Buruma, though he advocated jail for anyone who used violence.

For societies struggling to find compromises, he concluded; "there is no perfect blueprint ... not one absolutely right answer. And that, I believe, is the essence of liberalism."

The event, which was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies in collaboration with the Cornell Institute for European Studies and the East Asia Program, was co-sponsored by the University Lectures Committee, the government department and the Religious Studies Program.

Paul Bennetch '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.