We fight wars to defend it, vote to uphold it and pride ourselves upon it. But what's so good about democracy?
In this wide-ranging talk, Professor John Keane, author of The Life and Death of Democracy, discusses the history of an evolving ideal that continues to shape our world, from the Ancients through to today.
John Keane is an Australian-born British political theorist. Educated at the Universities of Adelaide, Toronto and Cambridge, Keane is currently Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. He still spends some of his time as visiting professor there. In 1989, Keane founded the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. In recent years, Keane has held the Karl Deutsch Professorship in Berlin and served as Gavron Fellow of the think-tank, Institute for Public Policy Research.
Among his many books are The Media and Democracy, which has been translated into more than twenty-five languages; plus Democracy and Civil Society; Reflections on Violence; Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions; and the prize-winning biography Tom Paine: A Political Life. Among his most recent works are Global Civil Society?, Violence and Democracy, (with Wolfgang Merkel and others) The Future of Representative Democracy and The Life and Death of Democracy.
Keane - who is an quality scholar - is stretching pretty thin here. First off, attributing a "democratic" tradition to Mesopotamian assemblies is nearly indefensible as we know next to nothing about what went on in those assemblies. This seems like little more than a stab at fashionably rejecting views of Greek origination of democratic assembly.
He's on far shakier ground in trying to make the case for Islam as the agent of Democracy through the middle ages. This seems to be another shot at fashionable scholarship in which Keane might cross enough boundaries of academic obligations that he discredits himself. Most notably, if he intended to provide evidence that Islam somehow protected democracy then he fails spectacularly. Surely it isn't proof of a democratic tradition that early Islam "opposed monarchies" - come on now Dr. Keane, Islam "opposed" monarchy in name but the form itself was retained with a vengeance.
What he misses - but inadvertently returns to later - is that democracy as we know it today isn't democracy at all if it's not bounded with constitutionalism and liberalism. Or, put differently, with the rule of law and a strong cultural tendency to tolerance of the other. On both of these scores Islam has historically been a miserable failure, with one or two exceptional moments.
All in all - this book seems to be Keane's effort to style some new angle on Democracy that challenges the status quo. The sad reality is that himself knows better. But book reviews won't call you "bold" or "daring" if you don't run off and do something unorthodox.