Friday, September 08, 2006

Platonic Voting Rights!

Public opinion and its role or its relation to democracy is the subject of discussion in Tehran these days. While reformists insist on the importance of direct public vote, conservatives and fundamentalists do not believe that public opinion has anything to do with the legitimacy of government, but that it only strengthens it. The arguments given on both sides are worth considering.

The reformists’ camp, consistent with their last eight years governing, calls for a mandate for the people’s directly-expressed opinion. President Khatami, in his last three speeches, has stated that the Constitutional Movement has enshrined the people’s right to vote. In another speech he says that even Imam Ali would not rule justly without the people’s will. In his very last speech on the occasion of the opening of the office of the new newspaper, Ayandeye Naw, he argues that Imam Khomeini believed that the direct vote of the people is a necessity, particularly in a republic. Khatami said that Imam Khomeini very strictly demanded that the Islamic Republic and the Constitution be subject to a referendum, even though his popularity among the people was beyond doubt a mandate already. Khatami not only finds voting rights of great importance in a democratic political system, but also whatever secures it, such as a free press, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

From the other camp, that of the conservatives and fundamentalists, there is a stream of statements indicating that they see neither any connection between the people’s right to vote and the legitimacy of government or its necessity. Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, in his recent interview or speech (it is unclear on what occasioned this interview took place), declared very bluntly without any arguments or explanation, reasoning or clarification, that government does not obtain its legitimacy from the people’s vote. Badamchian, the chairman of the Motalefeh Party, is of the same belief, and so is Mesbah Yazdi of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Jenati, Tehran’s Friday Imam, recently said that the worst day of his life was when they were discussing woman’s rights in general, leave alone their right to vote. Ayatollah Khamene’i is totally oblivion to the entire issue.

The daily Sharq, following the above-mentioned statement of Sadeq Larijani, tried to explain his view. (I do not know who wrote the article, as it is unsigned.) Here is a translation of it:

This view of Larijani is not very unusual, that “a government oriented towards human perfection and with its goal the attainment of a maxim of moral behavior” is in fact the Platonic model of the Perfect Republic, which favors the ruling of the wise and the expert. This reflects the same opposition between Soroush and Mohammad Javad Larijani. Sorush says that it is only freedom that helps us to find the truth, while Larijani denies that. And it is from here that these theoretical discussions enter into the daily life of ordinary people. While Iranian reformists do not see any other way for the future of the Islamic Republic but democracy and freedom, fundamentalists prefer to evaluate the government with morality and justice. The idea gradually enters into the details of people’s life. (sic)

Well, there are several problems with what is being said here besides its irrelevance. These statements do not follow logically, and one wonders what happened to the rules of writing and logical connection between sentences. One wonders what school of journalism allows the reporter to come to the aid of those who are uttering such embarrassing statements and tries to justify them.

The reader might question if Ayatollah Larijani is aware that he is echoing Platonic ideas. Does he agree with this? Does he acknowledge this? Moreover, reducing Plato’s ideas and philosophy, even as adapted by Muslim thinkers, to a triviality as quoted above is beneath contempt. Plato’s philosophy, as well as Aristotle’s, is such a complicated and sophisticated system that it is rightly called the foundation of Western philosophy. It is still a matter of dispute how well his thought could have been understood by his pupils and thinkers of later generations. It is accepted in the West that Western philosophy is nothing but a footnote to Plato and Aristotle and that the complexity of Plato’s world of Ideas requires more contemplation and thought for a journalist to summarize it in one sentence, “Plato did not believe in the people’s vote but believed in the rule of experts.” It is not within the scope of this essay to explain the Platonic concept of a Perfect Republic. Suffice it to say that his Republic was ruled by a perfect, just ruler who had been raised to rule, along with many others, by an assembly of experts who themselves had been selected and trained and passed tests and who amounted to about one third of the population. This model of a republic is so idealistic that it is impossible to be applied to real life, and can only be approximated at best.

Sharq should perform its duty and responsibility in the field of journalism and should do its best to ask the right questions from the responsible parties. It is not the journalist’s job to come to the rescue of those who express whatever comes to their mind without respecting their audience and their readership enough to explain it or assume the responsibility and take the blame. It is not the newspaper’s job to justify errors with erroneous statements of their own. A few relevant questions regarding what the speaker thinks about the present Constitution and his position towards those who constantly urge people to vote will serve people like Larijani and the public better. Obviously those who care for Larijani’s ideas do not care if they are in accordance with Plato or not. Larijani is a good enough authority for them, and as for the rest, they don’t read what he says anyhow. But the issue remains that most of the problems we have at this point are due to that fact that the right question have not been raised at the right time, and when an outrageous statement should be exposed as such, it became hidden by namedropping and false justifications. In the course of our modern history, we have paid a high price for letting sloppy thoughtless questions and answers be dismissed and only when they turned into serious problems have we noticed them. Most of the catastrophes have been started by exactly the sort of thing that Larijani said. Watch it!