On Democracy

Warning: this post talks about current politics.

Professor McCoy said something in class on Friday that I can’t seem to shake: “A vote can do a violence, as much as it can be curative.” Recent events (too many to list, but among them include recent policy proposals on the state of transgender people in America, comments and military actions against refugees, and the recent Supreme Court nomination) have convinced me that many votes, almost half, that were cast in the 2016 election were a violence. I am both exhausted and outraged. So many people voting for and continuing to support these violations of human rights is emotionally tiring and I am outraged for the people that are directly under attack because of the actions of the current administration.

However, I also am firm in my belief that democracy is better than any of the other options. Winston Churchill once said that “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” (As Churchill historian Richard Langworth pointed out, Churchill wasn’t the originator of this phrase, but he did make it famous, and no one has been able to pinpoint the exact origin). I completely agree with this point – democracy has its flaws, especially the American form, but there isn’t a better alternative.

Part of the problem with American democracy is that the Founding Fathers had no intentions of setting up a democracy and in fact used the word as a pejorative term – they believed that “the mass of citizens are corruptible and easily swayed.  This makes them susceptible to charismatic leaders, or even chaotic mob rule. Poor people, they reasoned, could also be bought off.” Basically, they didn’t trust poor people, and there’s also the issue of racism and sexism written into the original Constitution that has set up a precedent of racism and sexism throughout the entire history of America. Recently, but not for the first time, this precedent has reared its ugly head. Nevertheless, I am sure that democracy is better than any of the alternatives. It at least gives voice to public opinion and provides for more basic human rights, even if the public opinion is one that is undesirable, to say the least.

For this reason, I have been struggling with the scene in The Obelisk Gate where Essun destroys the ballot box, eliminating the only semblance of democracy we’ve seen so far in this series.

“‘No vote,’ you say… ‘Leave. Go join Rennanis if they’ll have you, But if you stay, no part of this comm gets to decide that any other part of this comm is expendable. No voting on who gets to be people” (Jemisin 334-5).  

At what point is democracy no longer justified? At what point is a coup acceptable, even better than the alternative? No one should get decide who gets to be people, a point which is sadly relevant with the recent developments on transgender rights in America, but what about the sanctity of choice, of voting? What can we do when a democracy is voting on things that shouldn’t be voted on? Is it worth trying to preserve, or do we overthrow it and start again? Essun defined herself as a dictator, something that has generally negative connotations, so what is Jemisin trying to say about the state of democracy today?

I think in Essun’s world, her coup d’etat was justified as much as it can be – her rights and the rights of others like her were at stake, and she at least offers the option to leave and join Rennanis. But her threat to the remaining comm members, that she will kill them if they don’t cooperate is troubling – what happened to free will? Then again, it’s a safety issue.  Perhaps the best parallel we have to this in the real world is the wartime powers of the president to unilaterally make decisions they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, but this has led to human rights violations in the past.

The ballots in The Obelisk Gate had the power to do a violence against the orogenes, but without knowing what was in the ballot box, there is no way to know if her actions were justified. The possibility that the citizens of Castrima to vote to protect the orogenes was there, but we’ll never be sure.

Thus, I am conflicted over Essun’s actions in this part of The Obelisk Gate. In the end, I support the spirit behind and the outcome of her decision, but I don’t think that it should be a model for action in our own world. Violence begets violence, and a dictator leads to resentment. At least the citizens of Castrima who didn’t want to protect the orogenes could leave, but it is a small comfort. Ultimately, participation in democracy is what creates fairness, or at least that’s how it should work. Consider this a reminder to get out and vote next week.

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