Monday, June 16, 2008

Limits of democracy

Often, in the wake of a revolution, or maybe after a mere political victory, males like to hoist a waving female into the air, as a kind of victory symbol.

I've often felt that this symbolism is inspired, at least in France, by the famous painting by Eugène Delacroix showing a bare-breasted Marianne on the barricades of Paris after the revolution of 1830.

The Irish girl in the referendum photo is hardly a match for Marianne. Her breasts are securely buttoned down, and the object she's waving in her right hand (an Irish flag?) is too small to be identified. And I can't help wondering if she really understood what she had voted against...

To a large extent, the success of the Irish no was based upon ignorance concerning the detailed content of the treaty proposal. There was a referendum slogan: If you don't know, vote no! Well, that's fair enough. If voters are unable to understand what they're supposed to be voting for (or against), this means that the politicians and communications specialists who organized the referendum didn't do a good didactic job. But this observation leads in turn to a more fundamental interrogation: Is it really possible, in the case of such a complex entity as Europe, to expect ordinary folk to master all the issues at stake? My gut feeling is no. There are limits to the familiar democratic process founded upon voting by the people. It's like organizing a referendum to decide, say, what kind of nuclear reactors should be built in France for future energy supplies. As somebody might have said: You can question some citizens all of the time, and all citizens some of the time, but... there are many highly technical questions that cannot possibly be answered intelligently by a referendum. My conclusion on this affair is that the Irish government was naive [like the French government, a few years ago] in imagining that you can ask the people to decide upon the technicalities of our future Europe. So, Ireland has the responsibility of mending this error.

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