The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Noah Smith put up an excellent post the other day about the long-standing myth (possibly started by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) that so-called Asian values, at times, clash with democracy. We’ll ignore, for the moment, that Mr Lee’s comment led to the first major swing toward the opposition Workers’ Party in Singaporean history. We’ll also ignore that Taiwan, South Korea and Mongolia have all successfully transitioned to democracy, and that Indonesia and the Philippines have made strides toward democracy as well. Never mind that India has had democratic institutions for as long as the West has. Counter-examples are rife, and not just in Asia. The values vs democracy story is not a new one, yet it persists despite being repeatedly and definitively disproved.

Long before Mr Lee’s comment, the survival of la leyenda negra, Gen. Franco, and a revolving door system of dictatorships throughout Latin America allowed some to make a convincing case for the inherent reactionary and non-democratic nature of Latins (whoever they are.) The amazing aspect of this story was that it was used not only to denigrate the democratic capabilities of Latin Europeans and Americans, but was also espoused by reactionaries such as the Brazilian Integralists to justify maintaining their own non-democratic power. Years after democracy has established itself in Spain and continues to grow throughout Latin America, conservative thinkers and strategists still cite “yes, but” arguments as an attempt to denigrate the strides made toward democracy in these countries. It’s not difficult to imagine Rudyard Kipling espousing such arguments, nor Karl Rove. Colonialism is colonialism, not matter who you slice it, and it never works.

Sure, the narrative of history is often uncertain, unpredictable and non-monotonic. Nations and peoples often get stuck in vicious political or economic cycles as a result of poor decisions, corrupt power structures or desperation. But, growing up in a multicultural household, having lived in four countries on three different continents and visited over thirty others, I have only come across maybe ten people in the whole world who do not seek growth and expansion of their own freedoms and, more importantly, their capabilities toward autonomy and self-actualization. To suggest that such values simply do not exist in some parts of the world is nothing short of a cynical, deleterious racism couched in academic terms.