Right Angle Club 2008
A report, to the year 2008 shareholders of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia, by the outgoing president, Neale Bringhurst...
The Philadelphia Right Angle Club has mainly local speakers, so topics tend to concentrate on the Philadelphia scene. Recently, a Philadelphia resident was asked to speak, and chose the intriguing topic of the lack of democracy in Pakistan. Explaining, to general surprise, why that lack may be inevitable in all undeveloped countries, and therefore not to be criticized too harshly in this one.
As a starting generalization, he pointed out that democracy is almost never found in countries where the average annual income is less than $6000, and almost universally found in countries where income is above that level. The main exception is India, which was described as having a "sham" democracy. Historical exceptions like ancient Athens and Iceland were not elaborated upon, so perhaps it might be better to say poverty is a hindrance to democracy, and let it go at that. The general idea is that Pakistan needs to get more prosperous, and particularly needs to get rid of the things making it less prosperous. When that's accomplished, democracy will establish itself without help. At the very least it cannot be expected to establish itself before then. One subtle jibe at the British (and the American Democrat party) is the point that it helps establish democracy if everybody is a taxpayer, not just the filthy rich. Democracy is helped to emerge when universal taxation provokes a demand for universal representation. Even a second historical echo might have been hidden in our speaker's pointing out that because much of Pakistan is in the feudal hands of two hundred families; the poor serfs of their fiefdoms invariably vote as their owner wishes, thus leading to a small political oligarchy. Americans were not twitted, but might have been, whether the Pakistan constitution should have imitated our own provision for 3/5 votes for slaves.
To go back to poverty itself, it is probably possible to editorialize that other main factors hindering democracy's development could be viewed as expedients evolved to sustain a functioning society in the midst of poverty, or are inherent limitations of poverty. Like lack of education, overpopulation defined as a ratio of population to resources, ethnic enclaves organized around religious leaders, feudal systems of self-defense, and vulnerability to invasion leading to overspending on defense. Even the suppression of women can be viewed as a poor, weak society's way of sustaining the number of soldiers while cutting the number of people needing costly education by half. These are not congenial concepts for Americans, but it must be granted they have importance if you adopt our speaker's central thesis: the military government of Pakistan may be the least bad choice now available to that country. At least two other epigrams touch the same conclusion: survival may temporarily seem more important than democracy, and/or democracy may be unachievable until prosperity is first achieved by authoritarianism. That last one is really uncomfortable, because it may imply that revolution is the second step in a three-step process.
Meanwhile, we have to be sympathetic with Pakistan's struggle with a problem any fair-minded person would agree is not an easy one. Their country is a series of valleys between some of the highest mountains in the world, with the rest of the countryside either desert or in contention with India. Pakistani must police a border cut down the middle of the mountains by the British, separating two portions of the same tribe who share the common bond of survival in the harshest climate in the world. They are in constant international contention with India, both sides brandishing nuclear arms. The bitterness of the Israeli-Palestine conflict inflames religious sentiment. America pursues its international interests within Pakistan's borders and against some who are regarded as fellow tribesmen, certainly co-religionists. The opium trade from Afghanistan infiltrates the borders. The nation is composed of five feudal states, united only in their annoyance with Moslem immigrants from India who are better educated than the locals, and who offend the local cultures with jarring dissimilarities. And finally, Bin Laden and his fellow Wahhabi zealots are in their midst, funded with vast amounts of Saudi money to pursue worldwide disruptions, hotly pursued by Americans who are not of their religion and not particularly careful of local sensitivities. Under the circumstances, perhaps our demand that they adopt a perfect democracy, and right now, is understandably exasperating.
Originally published: Friday, October 10, 2008; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019
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