My message of support for Ms Machado has touched a nerve, most strongly amongst free software advocates who live in Venezuela.
Every country will have its own culture and way of doing things, and we should pay great respect to the choices and decisions of that country. It is a tragic thing to impose ones own cultural, religious or political views on people who see things differently. That tragedy has played out far too many times – from Apartheid, to the Holocaust, to the invasion of Iraq in recent history, to the acts of the Conquistadors centuries ago. It shows up when a new government renames the streets and cities of the old government, which renamed them from the previous government. We lose our own identity when we lose the voice of history, even if it is a history of which we are ashamed. It also shows up in the homogenization of global culture, with McDonalds and Disney turning the rich culture of the world into large swathes of barren desert. I am very sensitive to the beauty of the cultures that I’ve been privileged to experience in depth – South Africa, Russia, England, America. And I find it sad when one culture arrogantly suppresses another. I believe in letting people make their own choices. The future belongs to those who embrace global thinking without losing their identity and their culture.
At its largest, grandest level, “making choices” is what democracy is all about. However, sometimes the illusion of democracy is used to give legitimacy to choices that were not, at all, democratic.
In Zimbabwe, for example, we have a government that is in power “democratically” because of the systematic culture of fear that was created every time people expressed an interest in making a different choice. I cannot therefor pay much respect to the idea that the government of Zimbabwe is a true reflection of the cultural choices of Zimbabweans.
In such cases, we are obliged to question the decisions made by governments who claim to hold power by democratic mandate, when in fact they hold it by brute force. They may make some good claims and have some noble ideals, but the foundation of their authority is rotten, and it’s highly unlikely that much good will come of it for the long term.
I’m not going to comment directly on the policies of Mr Chavez. Frankly, I’m not qualified to speak on the details of his administration. But I will say that my experience of countries and governance, across continents and decades, has taught me the value of certain key principles:
First, that human nature is unchanging across the world and across time. This, as they say, is why history rhymes with itself. We make the same mistakes, we inspire ourselves to fix them, rinse and repeat. It’s human nature that makes absolute power corrupt absolutely. And its human nature to seek additional power. It’s rare to find someone who will create checks and balances on themselves. This is most eloquently described in the early writings of the American constitutional authors, who sought to “pit ambition against ambition”, and create checks and balances in society, so that neither the authorities, nor the judges, nor the media, could dominate the decisions we make for ourselves.
Second, that the presumption of innocence until the proof of guilt is a vital choice in the maintenance of a free society. In a world where even good countries can elect bad governments, we cannot let the unchallenged word of a government, any government, be sufficient to silence and stifle the lives of their citizens. I find it equally disturbing that American citizens can be locked up without access to attorneys in confidence, and that Zimbabwean opposition members can be arrested and held without charge for long periods. I also find it equally disturbing that residents of the United Kingdom can find themselves in Guantanamo Bay, on what is clearly flimsy or false evidence, without the UK fighting for their release or impartial trial. I am neither for Mr Bush, nor Mr Mugabe, nor Mr Blair, I am simply for the presumption of innocence until an impartial trial finds one guilty.
Third, that freedom of speech is essential for a healthy society. This is a freedom which we cannot take for granted. There is constantly a desire on the part of those in power to reduce the volume of criticism they must face. We have to constantly remind ourselves that those in authority have chosen to play a public role, and they must accept a level of public accountability and criticism, even from people who may have a personal agenda. Of course, not all speech is truth, and conspiracies often arise which seek to use the media to spread misinformation. But we are all better off when multiple viewpoints can be expressed. I’m no believe in media infallibility – we’ve seen very bad journalism from the biggest media networks in the world, for example when they get “embedded” in a controlled fashion into armies of war. But I’m a big believer in allowing calm voices to be heard, globally.
These principles are not written in the laws of physics – we create them in society, and we must defend them. They cannot be taken for granted, even in countries like the USA, which have them written into their constitutional DNA. Since they are a choice that society makes, and since society is reborn in each generation, they are a choice that society must make, and remake, constantly. Sometimes, we fail. Usually, we fail for fear when we are confronted by a perceived threat to security, or for greed when we are presented with the opportunity to benefit ourselves at great cost to others. And it as at times like that, when there is great stress, noise, fear, anger and shouting, that it is most important for calm voices to be heard.
At times like these, we are our own worst enemy. We hear what we want to hear. It is painful to hear that one might be wrong, that one’s hero might have flaws, that one’s leaders might not be all that we wished them to be. The awful truth of the media is that it pays to tell people what they want to hear, much more than it pays to tell people what they need to hear, and so society can whip itself into a frenzy of mistaken greed or fear or anger, and make poor decisions.
It takes great courage to speak out, when these basic principles are at risk. In a free society, there is nevertheless pressure to conform, to stay with the herd. In a society that is not free, one speaks out at some considerable personal cost to life and liberty. I salute those who do.