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Is democracy going down the drain?

  • 24 November 2021
There is much discussion about the future of democracy, freedom and other aspects of liberal institutions. Mainly in the United States, under the pressure of a polarised public life. But also to a lesser extent in Australia, in the face of the evasive and authoritarian behaviour of governments and the manifest priority of winning elections over addressing the existential threats of global warming and gross inequality. The conversation, of course, is also generated by the rise of China with its unashamedly totalitarian institutions and consequent capacity for decisive government action.

These factors raise the question whether ideas like freedom, democracy, public service and public accountability have the force that they once had when they inspired a costly struggle against autocracy. They also prompt reflection on why they might have lost that force and how they might regain it. In my view it is inevitable that inspiring ideas and words are hollowed out by the human failure to embody them in practice. As a result they become tainted with hypocrisy. The language then becomes uninspiring and loses its force to unify people. It needs to be renewed by costly and conspicuous manifestations of virtue.

The fate of Christian words certainly reflect this process. One of the most sacred words to describe the Christian life is charity. In its origins it embodies the response to the warm, self-sacrificing, universal and astonishing love of God for each human being. Yet its evisceration can be seen in the popular saying, ‘She (or it) is as cold as charity. The origin of this phrase lies in Jesus’ prediction of a time when people’s charity will grow cold. But in its later usage the coldness is seen to mark charity itself. It characterises people who act out of duty but without feeling. They may speak of charity as their motivation but their behaviour reveals hypocrisy or brutality.

This corruption affects especially words originally denoting a tender care for people. Places that offered protection to people in need were called asylums. The word came to represent harsh places to which people were despatched in order to protect the general populace. Similarly, places for people who were mentally ill were named after Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born and cared for by angels. The word was shortened to bedlam, a place of disorder where devilish behaviour abounded. Mary Magdalene, the Biblical character, then considered to have been a repentant prostitute