Democracy: Expression and Decision-making

Jon Stewart’s away in Egypt filming (nice work, John Oliver). I just saw Jon talking with Bassem Youssef, host and resident satirist at Al-Bernameg. (Skip ahead to 10:11.)

Skip ahead to 10:11. Jon and Bassem start talking about the role of humor in political commentary and the differences between insults, injury, tyranny, and democracy:

“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime… A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas to a group of people in a park. It is just talk.

“What Bassem is doing… is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. [Democracy] is just the opportunity to be heard and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it.” —Jon Stewart (emphasis added)

A large corporation speaks through a wall of speakers at 3 small people with a bullhorn: "This 'freedom of speech' that we all enjoy is the great equalizer, wouldn't you say?"

(c) Matt Muerker | via Glogster

This comment obviously played well in its context, but I don’t think what it describes is the essence of democracy at all. Free expression is the point at which Jon’s work intersects with US culture; it may be part of the national ideal and of course it’s protected by the constitution as the first element of the Bill of Rights. Free expression may even be what US media and interests export in nation-building and culture-sharing projects elsewhere. Regarding it as the core of democracy is par for the course when thought leaders define democracy in terms of expression rights and occasional leadership selection but not in terms of routine decision-making or authority.

Why is it that popular definitions of democracy do not deal with free choice or access to decision-making, or evaluation of authority? Why do we so often stop short at the right to say as we please, however obnoxious we might be? How does the “it’s just talk” model serve the people? Another satirist, George Carlin, had some cynical thoughts about this. What are yours?


ht: Splitsider and Joi Chadwick

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