INTERVIEW: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Democracy needs a "virtuous" society - George Weigel
, November 18, 2000
George Weigel, the Pope’s biographer and a noted political theorist, recently visited Australia. He told News Weekly that the principal challenge facing the Western democracies was the reinvigoration of the social and cultural elements which make democracy work.
News Weekly: Where do you see the world in 50 years time?
George Weigel: I really think that the crucial thing for democracies over the next two generations is the restoration of cultural foundations in democratic societies. Democracy is not a machine that will run by itself, it requires a certain kind of people to make the machinery work, it requires certain virtues, that’s why the Pope always talks about a free and virtuous society.
Unless people have internalised certain habits of heart and mind, which we call virtues, they will not be able to be democrats. All of us are born tyrants, one has to learn the habits of tolerance and a participation in argument, etc. In most of the democratic world, that culture that makes democracy possible, has atrophied over the last two generations because the idea of freedom has deteriorated.
Classic democratic theory as well as the official documents of the Church teach us that freedom is actually the right to do what we ought to do. The right to freely choose what is objectively good. Any other concept of freedom, particularly that of freedom being a licence, will ultimately self-destruct.
Now this is the crucial issues for democracies, because unless we can rebuild that culture, of freedom rightly understood, we will not be able to sort out at the political level, at the level of legislation and law, such issues as those proposed, for instance, by new biotechnologies.
Beyond that, there are a number of large questions on the international plain. Within China there is obviously a huge question there. I do not believe that the present regime in China can maintain the trappings of a totalitarian state indefinitely.
The history of Taiwan is very instructive in this regard. Taiwan a few years ago had the first genuinely democratic presidential election in five thousand years.
Why did that happen? It happened because a critical mass of the middle class people had formed.
From the Catholic Church’s point of view, when China opens up it will present the greatest missionary opportunity since the European discovery of the Americas. And I think it will be a tremendous Christian mission because unlike India where you have a deeply entrenched culturally transmitted religious system already in place, that’s not the case in China, at best you have a culturally transmitted moral system that has interesting points in tangency with biblical morality.
So with a Christian mission in the short term it is important not to allow the present regime to impose its world wide force on its neighbours. The other huge factor in the twenty-first century world is radical Islam. Its difficulties, to put it generally, in creating the cultural foundations for tolerant societies has to be a concern.
A third huge issue for the twenty-first century, particularly for people like yourselves who emerge out of the Western-European world of culture and politics, is that Western Europe is committing demographic suicide. There seems to be no indication of that reversing, even if that were to begin reversing in the next decade or two. I think that the unprecedented low birth rates in western Europe are evidence of the crisis of civilisational morale.
NW: Can that be reversed?
GW: I think that, talking about fifty years out, one possibility is that western Europe will be re-evangelised in the second half of the twenty-first century from Africa. That’s the way it works in the Christian world, there’s no reason to think that that kind of circulation of evangelical fervour will not result in a re-evangelised Western Europe.
Latin America is a very mixed picture right now, five or six years ago it really seemed as if had turned the corner into a democratic future. Now you’ve got serious problems in Peru, and Columbia has virtually ceased to exist as a coherent state.
On the other hand Chile seems to have built a robust democracy and economy as well as teetering on the edge of difficulties, it’s a mixed picture.
I think the great danger of the sixties and seventies was that Latin America would become the next great conquest of the Communist project — now that’s gone. And I think there has been a discrediting of “caudilloism”. Expectations have changed, the expectations now are that we will have a normal democratic society — the best news in Latin America recently is the election of the Vincente Fox in Mexico and the collapse of its long-ruling political apparatus.
While most recognise that Mexico has a long way to go, it is encouraging that the Mexican people are willing to take a chance politically.
NW: The late American historian, Christopher Lash, identified a new class emerging in the Western world creating a new elite which is undermining democracy. Was he right?
GW: Christopher Lasch was a very insightful social analysis and I share his sense that this notion of a new class is not simply a journalistic fantasy but is a sociological reality. The way this plays out in the United States I think is somewhat different to that our greatest structural problem right now is that democratic self-government is being increasingly replaced by the rule of unelected judges, by other forms of democratically unaccountable institutions, bureaucracies of some sort or other.
Why we do have, in general, such unimpressive candidates for national office? Part of the answer is that politics is now less important in defining the way life is going to be lived out.
There is a limit to how far that can go because obviously the political, legal domains have a considerable amount to do with the way life is lived. But it may well be that the world of the twenty-first century will begin to recover from the hangover of the notion of the past two hundred years, the early settlers and the French Revolution, that politics is not a principled domain in which the human project is at work.
And this takes us back to some large issues that we envisage being important in the year 2050. What is the status of the nation state in fifty years? State sovereignty in the Catholic conception has never been absolute by itself in the sense that the state is always accountable for moral norms that transcend it. That’s why you have things like human rights conventions. It is also true that real power, in the sense of its capacity to effect change in one direction or another, is wielded far more effectively by international institutions and transnational institutions and political and economic and financial institutions than by 90 per cent of the members in the UN.
This is a new thing. It has I think some positive dimensions — the globalisation of information, communications creates the possibility of the globalisation of the right ideas allowing the church to really speak to the nations.
The downside of this in the immediate circumstance comes from a kind of judicial activism which things like the European Court of Human Rights effectively operates over national legislation.
Or take the attempt of the Cairo population conference in 1994 to impose not simply the right to abortion on demand as an international human right — along with religious freedom, free speech, free press, free association — but to impose an entire concept of human person, human relationships, sexuality and all the rest through the instrumentality of international legal and political institutions.
If you read the draft documents for the Cairo Conference, it’s a new form of totalitarianism.
To this you add agencies imposing a kind of secularist, materialist concept of the human person on nations and you can see that it is a big issue right now.
NW: Are we seeing the demise of the nation state?
GW: Certainly the nation state counts for less in making history go. I think the question and issue is: Is this an irreversible process or is this adjustment to the international system to take account of the realities primarily, economic but also communications, transportation, etc?
There is this new aristocracy this new class of people who imagine themselves to be enlightened who are in fact committed not to participatory democratic and the sorting out of these very serious questions, but to rule by right and to know what’s best for everyone. This is a big problem.
* News Weekly has a limited number of signed copies of Mr Weigel’s Soul of the World available for $33.00 plus p&h.