Casting Aspersions

Is it right to question the integrity of people of a country based on what their democratically-elected government does? My opinion, based on the current global context, is that it is not correct. In this post, I will explain why. This is mainly in response to Great Bong’s post (link), in which he holds the opposite view. I respect his opinion as long as he is consistant. I will also relate this to blaming every bank employee (in Goldman Sachs etc.) for the banks’ role in the global economic crisis.

A view held by many is that the citizens on the country are ultimately responsible for the actions of the government. Thus, any state-sponsored activity, including terrorism, can be blamed upon every individual from the country. In theory, the government is suppose to reflect the views of the majority in the country, and therefore, the actions of the governments are indicative of the mass opinion in the country. I respect this view, but do not agree with it.

I question that basic premise of the argument that the government reflects the views of the majority. I have seen overwhelming evidence off-late that most democratically-elected governments today are plutocracies. First, there was the plutocracy memo (link) by the Citigroup. Second, I read this Al Jazeera article on the power of lobbying in the US (link). These pieces, among others, make me believe that common man has absolutely no voice in the governance of the country because he does not belong to the elite. Is my vote really worth a billionth of the value of all billion Indian voters put together? Regardless of what most of the country thinks, it is the wealth-driven lobbies, which dictate the domestic and foreign policy. That is disturbing.

Also, when we accuse a nation of being immoral, we should be willing to accept similar, well-reasoned aspersions on us. Let’s take Kashmir and the Northeastern India as examples, where our lawmakers have wrecked havok. We have rigged elections in Kashmir (link) and misused Armed Force Special Provision Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir and the Northeastern India (link) (Also look my post on Kashmir (link)).Based on these irresponsible acts, a Kashmiri or a Manipuri can easily label the rest of the nation as traitors. I am personally not responsible for these acts by our government. We all blame it on factors beyond our control such as the politicians and their vote-bank politics. Just like how I am not willing to take criticism for the atrocities my government commits (maybe, I ought to accept those criticisms), I do not want to blame another nation in entirety for actions of a few individuals of their government.

I apply the same moral compass in blaming bankers working for big banks for the sub-prime crisis. The contempt against the big banks for their hand in the crisis is well justified (link). But are we right in holding every individual who work in these firms responsible for the chaos? I assume that it is an “elite few” at the top who made those decisions that led to the downfall. Most worker have had no role in the crisis. Thus, I do not hold every banker accountable for the crisis.

There is one point for which I don’t have an answer. You may argue that the bankers have a choice to quit their job and work elsewhere. I think that’s a fair point. But I also think about the reality of their choice. After a fairly-long career, changing domains is not easy. The real choice is between a great lifestyle and being unemployed for a long time. Should one’s values be strong enough to punish oneself by being unemployed for no fault of their own?

This post appeared as a column in The Viewspaper (link)

13 Replies to “Casting Aspersions”

  1. I guess one would require to qualify the claim that something done by a democratically elected government cannot be blamed on its people.

    While the examples you provide justify your claim, I can think of a couple of other cases that to me seem like counterexamples.

    America. Obviously, there are lobbies playing their part in the functioning of the government, just as they would be anywhere else. But I think, the Americans are at fault because they are addicted to this concept that their country is the “leader of the free world”—the one great benevolent group of people that the world needs so badly, that the world cannot do without. While such an epithet might carry some value while comparing numbers like the GDP, it is absolutely ridiculous if, by conferring upon themselves such a title, the Americans think it is onto them to make decisions for everyone else in the world. Think of all the American interventions in various parts of the world. It is one thing to say that America is for democracy, for freedom, for equality, but it is absolutely undemocratic to use this claim to make decisions that satisfy their own vested interests. The contrast in its recent reactions to revolts in various parts of the middle east and Africa should make this clear. What is required to counter malevolent dictators (or natural calamities) is concerted action through a global and democratic organization. Isn’t it wrong that the Americans fail to recognize their part in the world? That they continue to think (and this is reflected in the things their government dares to do) they can meddle anywhere and everywhere despite facing consequences (both financially, and in terms of terrorism) simply because they are Americans?

    Consider Israel, a democratic country since its inception (Let us ignore the possibility of its inception being the antithesis of “people’s choice”). Knowing that Israel is probably the only country that manages to blatantly disobey international law with no guilt or remorse, and that government after government continues to commit human right violations and war crimes only because people continue to support such policies, is it wrong to place the blame on them for the unspeakable atrocities of their government?

    Obviously, the blame on the people would be lesser for any form of governance other than democracy.

    On the example of banks, what you say is true because banks are not democratic organizations.

  2. @Aravind
    As a country, of course, I am opposed to a number of things they do. There are a number of American who recognise that and are against their government actions. Number of them oppose Iraq war (including Obama). If you look at American senators/congressman vote on wars, it is mostly divided. Jon Stewart questions policies on Israel. Ron Paul, in fact, opposes American foreign policy in entirety. And each of these leaders have their group of supporters. There are voices that oppose what the government does. Media in America is controlled by giants. So those voices are further drowned. This also brings feedback loop in the effect. So I would not blame every person in America for their foreign policy.

    As far as Israel goes, I am not sure if people of Israel are happy about what their government does (to Gaza and West Bank). If we conduct a survey asking for their personal opinions, I assume we will see a divided result.

  3. Hey Shankin,
    I think I disagree with the basic premise. In a democracy, it is true that the government might not even do what the majority wants. But democracy is not only about how much your votes count. Most people are happy blaming the government for its actions, saying that lobbies dictate actions etc. etc. But at the end of the day, in a democracy the people do get what they want ( or what they deserve ). If the Indian government rigs election and harasses people in Kashmir and North-east India, we are to blame for it. If you really dont want these things to happen, raise a voice, mobilize people so that these things stop. But we wont, we are happy just saying I dont agree with it. By not doing anything about it, or penalizing the people who are making those decisions (by not voting for them in next elections), we are implicitly helping them along. We are responsible for it.
    Democracy is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. In a true democracy ( which India is, and we should be proud of that fact at least ), people are to blame for whatever the government does. Politicians are not a separate class amongst themselves, they are one of us and their actions are dictated by how the people react to their decisions.
    Coming to the bankers issue. I am sure a lot of people ( even employees at not so high a level ) knew that it was a bubble that was going to burst. They wanted to just get as much out of the system as they could. If they wanted to do the right thing, they could have quit, exposed what these banks are doing etc. etc. Instead, they stuck around to have a piece of the pie. We have to accept that some very smart people work at these place, and they played the economy for their gains. Either they didnt realize what effect they were having ( in which case they are not that smart and deserve to be blamed ) or they were just being greedy ( in which case they deserve the blame anyway, but I suspect they dont care for being blamed ).

  4. You point to deficiencies in the democratic processes as it is practiced in most nations today. I get a feeling that these shortcomings can only be overcome in a direct democracy set up where people would gather and themselves take a view on all major decisions. However, in a representative democracy decision making is to be done by the people’s representatives. We are nations, we want to be nations, and we will be nations for the foreseeable future. Hence we must have some kind of set norms about fixing accountability for actions, failing which a dangerous sense of anomie would prevail. Also, this argument clearly cuts both ways, to US and to Pakistan. Americans who have enjoyed benefits like social security and Britons who have enjoyed state welfare measures like NHS are beneficiaries of the hegemony their nations enjoy and the actions they enforce in the world stage. This also holds for the Bank employees who drew the big bonuses etc. There is a clear moral and financial dimension to it. These norms have been used and deemed acceptable till now. When India conducted Pokhran in 1998 there was no referendum taken to see where all citizens stand, but sanctions were imposed that impacted all of us. It is a valid political option for one sovereign nation to use it’s power to further it’s interests, citizens will be at the gaining and loosing ends both depending on time and place.

  5. @Mahesh
    @Manohar Seetharam

    I respect your opinions. My point with this post was not to be hypocritical about blaming other people but not taking the blame yourself. If you are willing to take the blame, you have every right to blame others too. At the same time, if you hold everyone accountable, you should be willing to give or take credit for good decisions. Are you willing to share credit for what PVN and Manmohan Singh’s liberalistion? Are you willing to give credit to _all_ Americans for raid on Bin Laden, not just SEALs and the president?

    I am of the opinion that people who make those decisions should given credit for it. I wont take credit for many good things India did because I did not have a hand in it. I wont take blame for bad things either. I will try my best to correct the mistakes of others, but I wont go out of the way to do that. If I become rich, I will lobby for what I think is right. If not, I am as helpless as Arundati Roy or Binayak Sen (not that I completely agree with them).

    PS: When terrorists kill common people in India, Pakistan or US, do you call the people who are killed as innocent people? If you do, you are contradicting yourself. If you don’t, you are at a risk of legitimising terrorism as a war.

  6. Shankar : It seems that many citizens have varied level of attachments with their country. Citizens typically are expected to be active in national and political life of a country, the job of politicisation of the masses is of Political parties and media. In your wordlview there is too much focus on an individual (symbolised by the many I’s). But you Shankar or me Manohar are irrelevant in global affairs. Also, citizen-state relations are typically much more closer than what you point out in your case. Nations are at the right hierarchy where sanctions can be enforced. In pursuit of over rationalisation we must not ignore realism. The reality is in todays world even something as basic as truth can be and must be negotiated. So, if “I” don’t back my state or strive to correct it “MY” interests will be traded off.

  7. By the way Arundhati Roy and Binayak Sen are far from being powerless. They have massive PIL lobby, NAC lobby, “Civil Society” lobby,media lobby and International peace lobby behind them. Let’s be clear on that. You and I wouldn’t have gotten away with that they have gotten away with.

  8. @Manohar Seetharam
    I agree with you. The problem is that an individual is insignificant in global affairs, but global affairs are significant to an individual. Terrorism (in US, India or Pakistan) is a result of what their respective governments did to their own people or others. Despite a fairly-big support base (Roy and Sen, for example), it is very hard to undo lobby-dicated government policies and actions. Regardless of who is in power, same lobbies dictate the governement policies. Yes, it is in our best interest to also fight for others’ rights, but “I” feel victimised when “I” am held responsible for something over which “I” do not have control. I assume it is the same for a regular Pakistani or an American.

  9. Unfortunately that’s a luxury that cannot be granted to citizens. Whatever the system that allows for lobbies to influence decisions also provided-for the citizens. Citizens cannot stake a claim to only the fruits of the system and distance themselves when it comes to other issues. Strictly on moral grounds it’s not acceptable. Then give up your degrees which state funds, give up your security benefits. The logical end of this argument will be to claim,” I am an independent, mobile republic” like Roy claims and show it in action. Then I will agree with you. She still enjoys state patronage, that’s a different issue though. As things stand “You” and “I” don’t have the right to feel victimised.

  10. Btw I am prepared to make distinctions between democracies and non-democracies. Also, within democracies depending on how much of citizen control and welfare measures have been a part of national politics. Eg: US and Sudan would be at opposite ends of the spectrum

  11. @Manohar Seetharam

    1. You are confusing a couple of things: Facing the good/bad consequences and taking the credit/blame. I face the both good and bad consequences of the system. Good consequences include my education and bad consequences include the bribes I had to pay to get my passport and DL. But I do not take credit either. I think DRDO, ISRO and related ministries did a great job and they deserve the credit for that they did and not me. I dont take credit for RTI. Similarly, I am not responsible for decisions of the govt I do not support. I hope you understand the distinction. There is no hypocrisy here.

    2. You have an ideal view of the democracy. My point in the post is that democracy today is far from ideal. Lobbyists and citizens are not on a level field. To claim otherwise is naive.

    3. Logical end for your argument is that you should also go to jail for our crimes in Kashmir and North East. Lets not get into logical ends of either of our argument.

    Your views have no hypocrisy. That’s why I respect it. My views aren’t hypocritical either. Lets agree that we disagree.

  12. Obviously, we cannot blame every person of any country for anything done. But, we can blame the collection of the people together. Americans are obviously to be blamed, despite having many examples of those who dissent its policies from within. The same holds for Israelis, and Indians if we manage to botch up Kashmir further.

  13. @Aravind (also @Manohar Seetharam and @Mahesh ):
    That’s exactly what I am saying. Calling American, Pakistani or Indians as hypocrites, terrorists or traitors is as much of a stereotype as calling muslims as terrorists. Just because the governments are democratically elected doesn’t mean they really follow people’s wishes.

    I am not shying away from the process. I think the misunderstanding arose because I was talking about individuals while you were talking about the whole group of people.

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