Democracy should be continuously stress-tested, verified, and criticized, but passion should always accompany devotion. When democracy fails, civil society fails as well.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the conference “With Conscience at the Core and Human Rights as the Bearing, Draw a Democratic Spectrum,” hosted on September 15, 2023, UN International Day of Democracy, at the National Taiwan University, in Taipei, Taiwan, by Association of World Citizenship (AWC) and its branch in Taiwan, Taiwan Financial Criminal Law Research Association, Action Alliance to Redress 1219, Tax & Legal Reform League, Taiwan Taxpayer Alliance, An Era of Conscience (ANEOC), Tax Reform Youth Front, Tai Ji Men Qigong Academy, Taiwan Traditional Foundation, China Traditional Chinese Medicine Culture Association, China National Medicine Academic Association, Ai Township Cultural Education Foundation, World People News (WPN), Global People Daily News (GPDN) and Grand Justice Publishing.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on September 26th, 2023.
I had the occasion, during previous seminars and webinars on what we aptly now call the “Tai Ji Men case,” to discuss democracy. As a matter of fact, we all should always discuss democracy. While democracy is one of those conquests humanity justly holds dear, sometimes human beings tend to take it too much for granted. When people take things too much for granted, their attention and carefulness may decrease. If we pay inadequate attention to democracy, we may become accustomed to it to the extent of not perceiving its benefits anymore, and not really realizing when we may be about to lose them.
Instead, if we constantly question, challenge, and discuss democracy, we are compelled to always keep our focus on it, reducing the risk of lessening our appreciation. Discussing democracy is in fact a key feature of democracy itself. Discussing democracy is democratic.
Democracy must be then continuously stress-tested, verified, and criticized, but always by accompanying passion with devotion. Let me draw an analogy with the way theology was discussed by the philosophical and theological current called Scholasticism in the Middle Ages in Europe. Profound believers as they were, Scholastic theologians were so mature in their faith and so free in their humanity to teach and dispute all things divine, even questioning God’s existence, if only as a working hypothesis. To prove and substantiate the existence of God and all its attributes through sound reasoning, they tested the opposite proposition. By examining the possibility that God could not exist, they ended up corroborating the concept of God’s existence by well-refined arguments. They rhetorically asked themselves and their fellow theologians and students the question—here I am using the classical formula of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)’s “Summa Theologiae” I, q. 2)—“an Deus sit,” which we may translate as both “whether God exist” and “whether God is God.’ We should constantly do the same with democracy. To ascertain whether democracy is good we should imagine how living in a despotic regime would be.
While always criticizing the possible and even probable feebleness, limits, shortcomings, and negativities of democracy, we should at the same time revere democracy. This would be the most democratic attitude of all. Let me underline this concept again, by formulating the idea the other way round: human beings should always strengthen their appreciation of democracy, despite its possible and even probable feebleness, limits, shortcomings and negativities, chiefly by criticizing it as it deserves to contribute to its improvement.
Another feature I had the occasion to discuss in previous seminars and webinars is the nature of democracy. The idea that democracy is the condition of the exercise of power, not a regime, and is compatible with different non-tyrannical forms of government, has a double-folded meaning. The first is the objective meaning of the concept. We understand it when we observe democracy from outside: people participate in the political life of a nation with no restrictions and constrictions. The second is a subjective meaning. We grasp it when we observe democracy from inside: democracy reveals itself to be not so much a theoretical feature of political science, but our everyday life.
We live in real democracy when we are free to decide what to make of our lives, when we decide what to believe in, when we are free to arrange our marital life, to take serious decisions for our present projecting our future, and even to organize our leisure time. I am not stressing the argument for the argument’s sake. In totalitarian regimes, people are not even free to organize their free time, if this does not suit the government’s goals. Take for example Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. People wearing glasses were exterminated as part of a colossal self-inflicted genocide by the Communist regime because, revealing to be people accustomed to read, they were suspected of dangerous free-thinking. Imagine the act of choosing whether to wear eyeglasses and what color and shape their frames should be that all of us can perform in a democratic society as a matter of course.
In sum, democracy is the multilayered word that for the sake of shortness we use when we want to indicate the complex and complexity of the possibilities of a free life. Public liberty is the core business of democracy. But immediately a companion term enters the scene. Responsibility.
Some commentators say that, at least in the West, the twinship of liberty and responsibility is the product of modern post-Enlightenment thinking. Supposedly, it finally shook off its shoulders the oppressive, religious-oriented paternalism of pre-modern times, which curtailed liberty and neglected responsibility. However, this is not true. Liberty and responsibility as intimately united are indeed the mark of the conscientious person, the spiritual person, the religious person. Only if human beings really understand nature, the ultimate divine core of liberty, they can properly handle all its consequences in a fully responsible way. Liberty is a powerful tool that makes human beings similar to God. It needs a God-inspired conscience to be used without being abused.
Yes, I am suggesting that democracy as the marriage of liberty and responsibility is for conscientious, spiritual, and religious people. Let us try to test this concept at an international level. International democracy is the symphony of nations trying to live and trade together without abuse. History has rarely seen this in action. It happened and continues to happen because rulers forget the divine dimension of liberty and responsibility. All wars, unrest, and turmoil of history may be traced and reduced to the hubris of some ruler who thinks to be like God or forgets God. When it happens, liberty and responsibility divorce, and peace among nations goes immediately broken. Surely, we can point out to some historical precedents of religious tyranny that seem to contradict this idea, but a second and more careful look at them would reveal again rulers acting God-like in deciding what religion should be mandatorily practiced by their subjects.
These difficulties inhibiting the ideal of a symphony of nations living together in peace that we call international democracy are clearly revealed by the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan. What in fact do we have here? We have a portion of peaceful and law-abiding citizens of a democratic nation who have been denied the very basic tenets of democracy for more than a quarter of a century. They include personal freedom, the ability to be fully responsible, justice, the rule of law, and equal treatment before the law. We have a handful of state bureaucrats and officers who act like absolute rulers and secular gods in denying the basic tenets of democracy to a portion of peaceful and law-abiding citizens of a democratic nation. We have these bureaucrats and officers of a democratic nation acting in a clearly non-democratic and anti-democratic way but nonetheless legally representing a democratic nation, as the fact that they are still in power shows.
How can a country where some of its representatives exert power in an undemocratic way stand up to the world as a bastion of local and international democracy? How should the democratic world consider a country like this? No democratic nation is exempt from problems and misdeeds, but this does not deny the right of the democratic world to judge the democratic world itself and its member states. It is the soul-searching act of examining its own conscience that the democratic world must constantly perform, if it wants to be seriously democratic, its mistakes notwithstanding. And if the world does it, if even the Taiwanese government does it, both the whole world and Taiwan will conclude that the Tai Ji Men case is unbearable for democracy and must be politically solved—now.
Tai Ji Men Shifu, or Grand Master, and dizi, or disciples, are the living testimony of the abyss a country falls into when democracy is curtailed and denied, when democracy is not criticized as it deserves, when democracy is criticized without the devotion and respect it always deserves.
I personally do love Taiwan for its struggle to speak for democracy in an area of the world where democracy is rare. I live in Europe, and I am now here in Taiwan. It is in Taiwan that I am recording this contribution to a highly relevant conference on international democracy and Tai Ji Men. Shortly, I will return to my country in Europe. But I already cannot wait to be back here in Taiwan yet one more time. Next time I will be in Taiwan, I would like to see the marriage of liberty and responsibility that we call democracy fully implemented. It will be the day when Tai Ji Men will be granted full democratic treatment and its case solved once for all. And it must come soon.