Monthly Archives: January 2012

Occupy Wall Street’s “Leaderless, Consensus-based Participatory Democracy”

I love The Economist. Though slightly dated (Oct 2011), this article “Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and it’s discontents” brings up an interesting point. The article is about the political organization of Occupy Wall Street, and it commends OWS for practicing what it preaches. It advocates for democratic reform, and it exemplifies the system for which it advocates. This type of democracy sounds like the direct democracy experienced in the Greek polis. It is ideal because it offers perhaps the purest manifestation of total enfranchisement. This is, at a glance, a very meaningful “subtype” of democracy. The adjectives (“leaderless, consensus-based, participatory”) in no way undermine a democratic system. Yet the author of this article explains that this system could only work in a small political community of like-minded individuals, and the criticisms of this type of democracy are as follows:

– this type of democracy cannot deal with “the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus.” The author explains that communes that rely on complete participation and consensus operate because those who have beliefs contrary to that of the commune stay away. Furthermore…

– “the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend towards extremism.” This is based on research that shows that when like-minded people interact continuously without much exposure to competing views, extremism is much more likely.

– “communal egalitarian living” often results in “heavy communal pressure to maintain the conformity of belief”, and thus this system can “point in the direction of radical decentralization and hyper-local control.”

It’s not news to me (nor would it be to any other poly sci student) that participatory democracy doesn’t work in a large, diverse, political entity. That’s okay. A democracy that only works in small communities of like-minded people is, technically, still a democracy. I think the question here, is how democratic is a system that fosters heavy pressure to maintain a certain ideology? Is this any different than liberal democracy – a system in which liberal values are firmly entrenched and marketed as absolute and morally necessary?

This article explains that though “leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy” sounds like an ideal, it is nothing more than another dream with a corresponding, imperfect reality. However, maybe the truth is that this is the face of true democracy – “leaderless, consensus-based, and participatory” are certainly three adjectives I would use to describe the democratic ideal. In this case, maybe “true democracy” can only function in small, homogenous communes. This article’s criticisms of this participatory system reflects the Western sentiment that true democracy does not exist alongside extremism. Could it be that it only exists alongside extremism?



Turkey as an “illiberal democracy”?

The Daily News,  quoting Fareed Zakaria, defines an “illiberal democracy” as “a political system in which free and fair elections take place, but civil liberties are not fully protected and governmental power is not limited with liberal principles. It is a much better model than any dictatorship, but it is far from the blessings of liberal democracy.” This article’s main condemnation of Turkey’s illiberal practices centers around it’s disregard for freedom of speech: there are currently 100 journalists residing in Turkish jails, charged with creating and distributing propaganda against the state.

What I found most interesting about this article was the operative definition of illiberal democracy. I am still in the process of formulating my personal notion of what democracy is, but I don’t believe a democracy necessarily needs to include Western liberal priorities. However, I do believe that “free and fair elections” are a necessary component of any democracy, and I see that phrase as a very loaded term. I don’t believe that free and fair elections can exist unless governmental power is limited (there must be competition!) and some freedom of expression prevails. As advocated by many scholars of democracy, I believe the deliberative function of democracy is necessary for a successful democratic regime. And this deliberative function cannot successfully operate without the freedom to associate, discuss, disagree, compete, etc.

That said, I would like to reiterate that I do believe the term “illiberal democracy”  is not necessarily a misnomer, nor a devaluation of democracy. Collier and Levitsky present illiberal democracy as an example of a diminished subtype of democracy, but I think the phrase can be valid, and have meaning. However, usually “illiberal democracy” is used to describe a regime in which their is an absence of basic freedoms needed for a political system to function democratically. The example given by Collier and Levitsky is Guatemala. In this case, “illiberal democracy” is an empty phrase, used to describe the existence of elections, but not much else.

There are many rights and freedoms that are enshrined in most Western democracies that are not necessary for the democracy itself to function. For example, the “mobility rights” and “official language rights” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not integral to the functioning of Canadian democracy, but reflect the values of our country.Of course, if the people of a nation are legitimately enfranchised, they will often opt for the codification of such rights. However, hypothetically, if the majority of citizens in state X voted to exclude mobility rights, language rights, and religious rights from their constitution – opting instead for a more conservative and restrictive state – that would be their perogative.

However, the situation in Turkey seems to concern freedom of expression and the lack of limitations on government power. In my mind, this is not an illiberal democracy. It is a fake democracy. Turkey does not need to be secular or espouse the accepted Western liberal values to have a functioning democratic system. But a democracy with a questionable rule of law (the article also mentions Turkey’s corrupt judiciary) is not illiberal – it’s not democratic.


Implications of Egypt as a New Islamic State

This is the basic numerical breakdown of the results of Egypt’s 2012 landmark Elections for the lower house of parliament:

Freedom and Justice Party (FJP… represents the Muslim Brotherhood): 47%

Salafi al-Nour Party (considered the hardline Islamist party): 24%

al-Wafd Party (liberal): 7%

And the remaining seats were split amongst smaller parties.Voter turnout was reported at 54%… a vast improvement from the approx. 10% that attended the puppet elections organized by Mubarak (though his gov. usually reported 20-30% participation). And all the Jews in the world are thinking… “what does this mean for Israel?” (We’ve been trained to tack that question on to basically every international politics issue… though in this case, it’s particularly relevant).

Officially, this is what Israel had to say: “We send the new parliament our wishes of constructive and fruitful work for the well-being of the Egyptian public. We trust Egypt will continue to uphold the importance of peace and stability in our region.”

What they really meant is: “Congratulations on your new democratic state. Unfortunately, it’s looking like your democracy is not swinging in our favour. Please uphold the 1979 peace treaty, or else your budding democracy is heading towards a conflict.”

Notably, (as reported by bikyamasr, independent news) the newly elected FJP speaker in Egyptian parliament, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, rejected the official congratulatory letter from the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin. Not a promising start for future Egyptian-Israeli relations.

But the Israeli concern is just one of the “liberal fears” pertaining to Egypt’s new political environment. Report Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of the BBC ventured to the Egyptian village of al-Tud to interview a man named Ahmed al-Tairi, an archetypal Salafist. Salafists are hardline Islamists, represented by the al-Nour Party –  they want the Egyptian state to return to the traditional political and moral practices of Islam. The Salafists that Wingfield-Hayes interviews in al-Tud are staunch advocates of Sharia Law, on the grounds that they feel it would ensure order and stability in Egypt. They explain that a system of traditional, corporal punishment is much more effective than Western systems when it comes to ensuring respect for the law. This is, of course, a bit difficult to refute. As explained by the village English teacher Mr. Tairi, a man is much less likely to steal if he knows the punishment is not a fine, but the loss of a hand.

Judging by the election results, it looks like most Egyptians would favour an official, state-wide return to more traditional Muslim values. If this is the case, the Western World doesn’t have much grounds for complaint. What would the argument be? “We want you to have a democracy… but only if your population’s wishes align with our interests.” Of course, this vision of a new, regimented, religious Egypt is very different for different people. It will be interesting to see how this goal is realized.

I am particularly interested to know how the average Egyptian would like their state to approach Israel. Needless to say, life in both countries will be easier if they are at peace. But what is higher on the agenda? Peace or pride? Perhaps there is too much animosity towards Israel in the Arab world for peaceful relations towards the Jewish state to be very high on the agenda. Clearly, because of my vested interested in Israel, I have a biased perspective on Israeli-Egyptian relations. But I truly am curious to know how the average Egyptian would like to see their state proceed. Does a Muslim state guarantee tension and turmoil? Or will the new Egyptian government be too focussed on domestic affairs to immediately retract the 1979 peace agreement? How much pressure will there be on Egypt to renege on Mubarak’s prior commitment? Any thoughts, or sources I could look at?




Of interest?

Just a shot in the dark, but I hope this strikes your fancy!

to Tyler Thibault – You say you like food… As do I. There are a lot of things I could post that would be of interest to a fellow foodie… but I chose this article. It’s really more about the spectacle of eating than food itself, but it’s really weird. Which appealed to me.

to Christa Bicego – It’s so cool that you want to be a veterinarian! I too, am an avid animal lover. If you haven’t seen this clip before… it kills me. I watch it when I’m sad. Also –  here is the online version of a really cool National Geographic article a read about animal domestication. They have been domesticating wild foxes in Siberia for generations, and they are starting to act just like dogs! They’re also insanely beautiful. I don’t believe in capturing a wild animal and keeping it as a pet of course, but after generations of domestication, these foxes are pretty pleased to be ‘lap dogs’.

to Jairus Yip – you mentioned that you are an exchange student from Singapore who would like some advice on what to do in Canada/Vancouver. Here are a few of my favourite things…

  • Whole Foods on Cambie st. and W. Broadway: this is an amazing organic food store. That sounds a bit boring, but it’s really not. They have a salad bar, a sandwich bar, a burrito bar, a pizza bar, a smoothie bar…. all fresh and homemade. It’s my favourite place to go for a casual lunch. They also have an incredible assortment of cheeses. It’s a great destination for both oral and visual pleasure.
  • Raw Canvas on Hamilton st. and Nelson (Yaletown): A really fun place to go with friends (or on a date). They have an amazing beer and wine list, and a nice assortment of appetizers… though it’s a bit on the pricey side. Sometimes they have live comedy or music, though the calibre of performance may vary… I don’t recommend the comedy. The back of the bar is an art studio, and you can buy a canvas and some paint and sociably drink and create art! (If you aren’t artistically inclined, you can always focus more on the drinking and attempt to finger paint.)
  • Zulu Records on 4th: Zulu is great because they sell tickets to almost all of the upcoming music shows in Vancouver. You can stop by, browse the records, and see which shows are coming to Vancouver. If you aren’t familiar with any upcoming artists but want to see some good live music, you can always ask for a recommendation 🙂



Does religion matter?

Generally, when I ask Harper supporters what they think of his evangelical values, they say they don’t think his personal views are particularly relevant. He does not enjoy unbridled power, and he is accountable to his party. Furthermore, his party is accountable to the Canadian citizens and to our parliamentary system. To an extent, I suppose this is true. They say they like his economic policy, and Harper won’t be turning Canada into a conservative Christian nation anytime soon. Probably true also. But can you really entirely disregard the man behind the policy? In Canada, it is more possible to make this argument than  it is in the States (where the President enjoys more liberty), but I’m still uncertain.

I’m a Jew, and lots of Jews support Harper because Harper supports Israel. And I get that. But I still find it interesting that so many Jews show support for our evangelical PM. Am I prejudiced because his religious affiliations make me a bit uncomfortable? Maybe I am. But it has nothing to do with his Christianity, so I don’t think it’s personal prejudice. Certain values that accompany evangelical Christianity are very contrary to my own. I am adamantly pro-choice, and adamantly pro-gay marriage. Do I think Harper is actively trying to change these things? No. Yet, do I want a man who symbolizes values that I reject to be the most prominent political figure in my country? Not really. However, maybe his personal beliefs really don’t matter, and perhaps I am not being pragmatic by allowing them to influence my vote. I’m not sure.

In any case, this is a topic that really interests me in the context of liberal democracies. All systems are different, but in effective, secular, liberal democracies like those seen in the Western world, does the religion of the nation’s leader matter? Once again, there is no ‘real’ answer to this question. It could also be related to a bigger question, which asks, to what extent do individuals even matter any more in world politics?

Mark Osler of the Huffington Post asserts that religion does matter. It must be noted that he recently wrote this article in reference to the American election, and the US is a country in which religion plays a much more prominent role in politics and the personal will of the President is more pivotal than it is in Canada. However, Osler explains that even Americans are quite hesitant to admit that the religion of a presidential candidate will effect that candidate’s prospects. (I have to assume he isn’t thinking predominantly about Tea Party politics, where religion plays a greater role.) Osler explains that you cannot ignore the religion of a political candidate because that religion has created the framework through which that individual sees the world. This is something I agree with. So how is it that so many of my friends, who claim to strongly disagree with Harper’s personal values, still give him their vote? Are we so secular-minded that we see religious convictions as entirely secondary and unthreatening?

Hilarious Headline of the Week: “David Peters Arrested for Child Pornography Wearing Awkward Shirt”

Click the photo to read the brief article from the Huffington post. If this isn’t irony…

Some clarification.

Anyone else confused about what happened this past week re: gay marriage annulment? This debacle has been a pretty great example of terrible journalism. Unfortunately, I must admit I fell victim to convincing headlines like this one from the Globe and Mail, citing Dan Savage’s claim: “I Had Been Divorced Overnight.” Who doesn’t love Dan Savage? And who doesn’t like to pick on Harper, at least a little bit… it had all the makings of a good story. Supposedly, our Conservative, evangelical PM had sneakily annulled thousands of marriages. I was excited, this was great ammunition with which to make Harper look bad. In reality, this was a pretty big Globe & Mail reporting fail. The situation is complicated, and unfortunately, it’s not Harper’s fault at all. Here is the best article I’ve found – it’s a good interview, and it explains the whole thing in a straight-forward and engaging manner. I’m not even going to try to summarize it, so read it yourself.

Skewed reporting really affects public opinion. It’s confusing. So with stuff like this going on, I wonder how Harper is feeling about his CBC cutbacks. Clearly, it doesn’t hurt to have the media on your side…

What is really going on in Russia?

I was at The Eatery last night, waiting for my best friend (a waitress there) to close the restaurant. A bit bored, I was chatting to the bartender, and my ears pricked when I heard him mention something about “those damn conservatives”… was there a politics debate on the horizon? He proceeded to tell me his theory about China/Russia/Brazil taking over the world due to their growing economies, middle class, and sheer population size… I remain suspicious. It sounded like an over-simplification… power in the international system is not a pure numbers game. Furthermore, domestic inequality and instability are two factors that can have a huge impact on a state’s ability to progress/gain international clout, and to my knowledge, the above nations have a lot to figure out within their own borders. Upon espousing this view, I was informed that I am a Western-centric thinker (gasp!), and that Russia, for one, is now democratic and thriving. I am pretty sure this is false – Putin’s a jerk and as far as I know corruption is rampant – but in truth, my post-Cold War knowledge of Russia isn’t much to flaunt. So – what is really going on in Russia? What is the current state of the Russian democracy? Are they really a contender again for “super power” status in the international arena? Disclaimer: The following analysis is merely of blog (rather than academic paper) caliber, but hopefully it sheds some light for those who don’t know a ton about this foreign giant.

Lazily, I’ve hit up BBC’s “country profile” (updated Dec 2011) for an overview. Here’s some points of note:

  • Income from natural resources (oil and gas) has helped Russia recover from the economic collapse of 1998 and Russia is becoming a key European supplier of these commodities – notably, Russia supplies Iran with the fuel for it’s Bushehr nuclear reactor (this pisses the US off)
  • Related to his successful (economic) policies, Putin has been quite popular in Russia over the past decade (presumably that is changing? These people don’t look too happy)
  • China is the world’s largest consumer of energy and Russia has recently become the world’s largest producer of oil. Is this the start of a beautiful friendship?

So, economically, things are looking pretty good. However, what I am more interested in is the state of the Russian government. As stated by Levy of the NY Times, “Russia seems to have adopted a kind of imitation of democracy. It is as if a veneer of legitimacy has been put on a variation of the strongman rule present here for centuries.” Since 2000, Putin has been elected twice as President. Due to constitutional restrictions, he was ineligible to run for presidential office in 2008, but was appointed as Prime Minister by Medvedev (puppet governance?). Now, in 2011, he has announced his intention to run for President again, and new rules lengthening  presidential terms may be enacted. This makes Putin look pretty sneaky, and the Russians are starting to think so too.

In December 2011, thousands of Russians protested with allegations of corruption, fraud, and false democracy. Even the Russian Orthodox Church has shown support for these political protests. Interestingly, this massive crowd of protesting Russians has been described as a “critical mass of middle-class professionals.” This is important – this is not a hysterical peasant riot, which is what many people think of when they hear that the Russians are protesting. Russians growing middle class is showing it’s ability to peacefully protest the forces that prevent successful Russian democracy.

Is Russia democratic? That is well beyond the scope of a blog post, it depends entirely on one’s definition of democracy. Corrupt elections and sneaky, power-mongering officials do not a democracy make. However, an enlarging middle class that has it’s mind set on a functioning democracy is a good indicator of stable governance to come. Notably, a country does not necessarily need to be a democracy to succeed in the international community, but it seems to help. Certainly, internal political instability is a distraction that can prevent a nation from focussing on its position in the larger global hierarchy. The past century or so of Russian history has proved that this populous nation has the capacity to rapidly industrialize, but also, to rapidly implode. I’m going to keep an eye on Russia’s relationship with Iran and China, and at this point, no massive oil-producing nation can be overlooked as a potential emerging superpower. However, with current environmental concerns, one can hope that the clout of the oil producing nations will begin to deplete. Furthermore, perhaps the hegemonic-superpower paradigm is no longer useful in our changing world, and this idea of either Russia, China, or Brazil “emerging” as a “Superpower” is becoming archaic. Either way, it is incontestable that in the international arena, certain states wield more control than others. My prediction is that if Putin is re-elected, we can expect an increased democratic deficit as well as further growth in the Russian economy. However, current world trends indicate that tolerance for tyranny is wearing thin, and we can expect Putin to have his hands too full with domestic uprisings to focus on international superiority. If he is not re-elected, then, really, who knows. Russia could be headed in a very positive direction. That said, Russia has some domestic sh*t to figure out before those of us in the West start forecasting the apocalypse of Western superiority.


Vancouverite, born and raised. I have an adorable dog, her name is Bella, she is the manifestation of all that is good in the world, the tangible embodiment of love. She has the most imploring eyes…

When I was younger, I wanted to be a geologist and my favourite animal was the turtle. Now, I want to be a lawyer, and my favourite animal is the capybara. If you want to see a monkey punch a capybara in the nose, check this out.

I love reading, music, food, crosswords, dogs, political philosophy, gold jewelry, family time, nature documentaries, carbonated water, Saltspring Island, European history, old houses/architecture, and velvet.

I work with some amazing people at the UBC Terry Project and the UBC Journal of International Affairs — in my experience, UBC campus has a very diverse and inspiring student body.

I am always on a mission to learn more about the Israel/Palestine crisis, read more Nietzsche, drink more water, and spend more time at the gym. I’m also always searching for new recipes, but I’m currently frustrated because I need a new food processor…

The future seems distant and my goals are vague. I want to enjoy the rest of my undergraduate education, rock the LSAT, and get into UBC Law. For now, I intend to meet interesting people, eat good food, and absorb as much information as possible.