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Presented February 27, 2011, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
Listen to a recording of "Call it a Day for Democracy: Thoughts on
our Revolutionary Present for Jacques Derrida."
31:49 minutes - 12.7 MB - Call it a Day for Democracy: Thoughts on our Revolutionary Present for Jacques Derrida. .mp3 file.
I have wanted us for the last few weeks to talk together as a community about the amazing time we are living through right now, this great day for freedom and democracy. We are living in a great day for democracy, as the demands for freedom and democracy have swept powerfully across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Democratic movement have arisen and shaken and transformed the Arab and Muslim world, beginning with Tunisia and Egypt and extending to Bahrain and Yemen and Jordan and now Libya.
In the last month or so, why we have been preoccupied with the winter and with snow, the world changed and 2011 became not just another year but a year of revolution. Not just another year but a revolutionary year, like 1776 and 1789 and 1848 and 1917 and1989. For the last month or so Dana, my Romanian wife, and I have been watching the world change on our TV right in front of our eyes and watching this great day for democracy happen and this year become a year of revolution. This has been an interesting experience for both of us because for one thing we were in Egypt together in 2006 and more importantly we know our life together and Sebastian's very existence are in a certain sense effects of revolution, of that earlier revolutionary period when communism collapsed and which we associate with the revolutionary year of 1989. Certainly Dana's life has been shaped by the revolution beginning in 1989, and as Americans we are all products of and heirs to our own great revolution.
Dana and I are married and we have our beautiful little son together of course, but at the same time Dana remains a Romanian and I of course am an American. Now most of the time those two national identities really don't matter, but sometimes the differences pronounce themselves very clearly, show up distinctly like a black dog in the snow. We had one of those times when Dana and I were walking down the street together in Cairo in December of 2006. We were talking together and walking by an elementary school just as the school was letting the kids out and when those kids saw me they all ran to me and circled around me saying American! American! Hello American! Our country is so central to the world. American products, American culture, American music, American corporations are everywhere. In Giza, just outside Cairo, the Sphinx looks out across the street, at the Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. America constantly advances upon the rest of the world and permeates it.
When America advances itself on the world and permeates it, it always at the same time advances itself as the great example of freedom and democracy, as the most advanced democracy in the world. My life with Dana is also a product of that American tendency to advance itself as the most advanced democracy in the world since we met when I was a Fulbright professor sent by our American government as an ambassador of our advanced democracy out to the new and fledgling democracy of Romania.
Now this tendency of our American culture and our American culture to advance itself as the advanced point of freedom and democracy is not without a certain self destroying irony, as Dana and I know only too well. After all, we both know our entire marriage thus far has been made possible by the progressive policies of Romania's and not America's democracy. We knew we could live together here for two years without either one of us having to give up our jobs because once she had Sebastian she would get a guaranteed and protected maternity leave from her job and some financial support from the government to replace her salary for 2 years. Now if democracy is about empowering people and helping them live freely, I'd have to say it is the Romanian democracy that has helped us do that. Our greatest and most advanced American democracy has finally advanced to the point that we do have protected parental leave when you have a baby, for 6 weeks without any financial support.
Another example of how our American tendency to advance ourselves as the most advanced democracy includes a certain self destroying irony is the topic that has dominated our country and our cultural debate during the three years that Dana has lived in America: health care. This is probably the most perplexing thing about America to Dana. Surely any democratic government which empowers its people and helps them live freely would provide basic health care to all its citizens. Romania is a poor country compared to the U.S., but all of its citizens have health care; no one has to keep a job they hate because they are afraid of losing their health care; no one fears being financially ruined because they got ill and had to be hospitalized for a long time. I'm sure Dana and lots of other people wonder how a country that doesn't even do this for its citizens can even call itself a democracy, let alone advance itself as the greatest, most advanced democracy in the world.
These are great and exciting days for democracy and all democracy lovers around the world. It's exciting to see the democracy movements sweep across the Arab world from one country to another. I am very excited about this as an American. We are a revolutionary people; our country was born out of our own revolution and I am sure as Americans we are all happy to see more freedom and democracy in Arab societies. America does constantly advance ourselves as the most advanced democracy in the world and we would be happy to welcome Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and other nations in the region to join with us in the great club of free and democratic societies.
Of course as we American have watched these revolutions happen and as we hope these countries may become like us, places of freedom and democracy, we have also had to deal with the self destroying irony of our own claims to be the great democracy on the earth. This is also what is happening today, during this time when we celebrate the fact that this seems to be a great day for democracy. We celebrate the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and hope for freedom and democracy for millions of Egyptians, but at the same time we become more aware of how our own country has supported Mubarak all these years, provided him with the money and the military capacity to suppress democratic protest in Egypt throughout the entire lives of al those 20-something protesters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. We see that when Mubarak's thugs attacked the crowds of nonviolent protesters in Cairo the tear gas canisters they used to do this were made in the U.S. and provided by our government. We as Americans learn about the fact that our government has provided Mubarak with more than a billion dollars of military aid every year for decades. We learn that the man our wonderful American media has called President Mubarak all these years hasn't really been a president but really a dictator that we have supported. We learn about the state of emergency Mubarak proclaimed that enabled him to suspend basic human rights temporarily, a favorite trick played by Hitler and other dictators the world over. Mubarak's temporary state of emergency has lasted for 31 years, but he was still strongly supported by us. As Americans, we know our government now is in the peculiar position of condemning the same person we have strongly supported for more than thirty years.
Of course our American support of Mubarak in Egypt is just the beginning of what we confront today, this great day for democracy, just one way in which we are confronted with the self destroying irony of our own claims to be the greatest democracy on the earth. In Bahrain the Shiite majority is ruled by a despotic Sunni royal family, which of course is supported by us and is a key ally for us because of our important naval base there. The democratic protesters in Bahrain a couple weeks ago were camped out in the central square and sleeping when the King sent attack helicopters to shoot at them, helicopters provided of course by the United States. If these democratic movements continue to sweep across the Arab world and there are huge throngs of protesters in the central urban areas of Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, what is going to happen then? We have provided the rulers of all three vital countries with very destructive military capacity without any concern for how these rulers suppress democratic movements in their countries as long as the oil flows. So what happens if their populations join the democratic wave that is sweeping across the region and hit the streets in protest? Is King Hussein going to allow democratic protest in Jordan? Is the Saudi royal family going to simply accept throngs of young demonstrators protesting in the central squares of the cities, or are they going to use the military weapons we have provided them all these years to wipe them out and destroy democratic movements in their countries? What are we going to do then, and how will Americans feel when we see medieval Arab rulers we have supported all these years use the military weapons we have provided them to wipe our their own young people who just want to live freely, like we do, with a job, and the internet, and the right to vote? Will Americans, the great freedom and democracy loving people of the earth, will we be shocked and outraged by that, or will most Americans be more angered and more shocked by 5 dollar a gallon gas?
All this is either happening today, this great day for freedom and democracy, or it promises to happen, is appearing as possibility, perhaps even as an inevitability, on the horizon. So much is happening today and today is one of those days when it is very different whether you think this day through the identity of a Romanian or through the identity of an American. As Americans we have so much to think about today, so much more than the rising price of gasoline. Everything that is happening today in Egypt and in Bahrain and in Jordan and everything that promises to happen in Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia confronts us as Americans in an absolutely unique way. All of it, all of it that is happening today and all of it that may happen tomorrow, forces us as Americans to think about our own American democracy, about our own tendency to advance ourselves always as the great example of freedom and democracy, and about all the ways those claims always come with a self destroying irony. For us, for Americans, everything that is happening today brings with it both a tremendous hope for the future and a tremendous weight, the weight at least of responsibility, and perhaps even of guilt.
What is inescapable and unavoidable today for all Americans is to think about our own democracy, about the health, the vibrancy, perhaps even the very existence of our own democracy. We can see on our TV sets the youthful protesters in Egypt and Bahrain and Libya and Tunisia and elsewhere making revolutions happen, making 2011 a revolutionary year, making this day a day for democracy. But as much as we Americans like to think of ourselves as the great democracy and as much as we advance ourselves as the great example of freedom and democracy, do these young protesters in Egypt or Bahrain or elsewhere see us and see America that way, or do they see America as a great barrier to the their own desires for true freedom and real democracy? That is the great question that comes to us today, to all Americans, from so many places in the Arab world all at once, today, this great day for democracy.
As I have been watching the revolutions happen as an American with Dana and Sebastian, I have been thinking about democracy and about these two contemporary philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Cornel West. Partly because I have been with Dana I have been thinking about that other year of revolutions, 1989, and the interview with Derrida back then, in that other revolutionary period, the interview he titled Call it a Day for Democracy, in which he tries to get us to think about the 2 possible meanings of that phrase at the same time. With all the revolutions happening at the time, says Derrida, we have to call it a day for democracy, but we also have to think about all the forces that threaten real democracy and cause us in despair to say we might as well call it a day for democracy.
This is in a way exactly what the American philosopher Cornel West did a few years ago when, in the depths of the despair of the Bush administration, he basically said we have to call it a day for democracy in America. West argued in Democracy Matters that contemporary America is not a democracy. It is an empire. Our government serves the interests not of the people but of powerful elites, financial interests, corporations, and what Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex." West argues that we should get used to saying not our American democracy but the American Empire, that this would be a more honest and realistic way of understanding ourselves. We are, West says, an empire with what he calls various sources of democratic energy threatened but still alive and sometimes even kicking.
Does that sound too pessimistic to you or just about right, pretty much spot on in terms of where we are today in America? Did we at some point along the way call it a day for democracy in America and learn instead to appreciate the benefits of empire, the most important of which has been of course cheap gasoline for our cars?
Jacques Derrida gives us what is perhaps a more optimistic way of thinking about ourselves and democracy. Derrida tries over and over again to get us to think differently. Our problem is that we think democracy in the wrong way. We think of it as something that either is or isn't, that we are or are not a democracy. Democracy, says Derrida, should be thought of as something that is always to come. Democracy has the structure of a promise and is something to always be sought after and worked toward. If we think democracy as always to come, then we don't think we have arrived, and we don't think of ourselves as an advanced democracy, and we don't advance on the rest of the world bragging about ourselves as a democracy. Democracy as Derrida gets us to think it, is always something of the future, something we need to move toward but without ever thinking that we have arrived there, ever made ourselves a true democracy. Democracy understood as something to come forces us to think about what policies and actions take us farther away from democracy and which ones take us closer to democracy, without ever actually arriving there.
The young people who have formed these revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and elsewhere are inspired by the messianic promise of something called democracy. They have risked their lives and some have lost their lives to make this a day for democracy. Right here in our own small, sacred place thousands of miles away from them, we honor them, mourn with them, and celebrate with them. Even if we ourselves live in the American Empire, we are part of the democratic energy within that empire. We too, just like the youth of the Arab world, are inspired and energized by the dream of democracy, by the promise that lives within that word. Let us all be even more inspired and even more energized by everything our brothers and sisters in the Arab world have done, are doing, and will do to make this day a great day for democracy.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.