Friday, December 01, 2006

Semantic flexibility

Always a problem with political terminology because some words, like 'liberty', 'choice', or 'democracy', are like motherhood and apple pie; no-one can be seen to object to them without inviting obloquy. So instead concepts are either stretched to allow for connotations that the terms were not originally designed to carry, or they are narrowed in order to exclude something the writer or speaker finds undesirable.

It was this tendency that led Isaiah Berlin to complain that liberty had become a concept so porous that there seemed no definition that it would not bear - hence his distinction between 'positive' and 'negative' liberty.

Democracy is also such a word, conditioned by people's response when it produces results they don't like. Neil Clark accuses Daniel Finklestein of doing just that - arguing he is using a 'Fordian' definition with regards to the election of Ahmadinejad in Iran. It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr Clark is using a somewhat elastic definition of the term when he states unequivocally that "Iran is a democracy", as Marcus points out.

Moreover, it is impossible not to notice that the 'Iran is a democracy' line is today being heard from those of a hard-left tradition that has historically tended to radically narrow the term when it is applied to the results of elections in the West in order to explain away the fact that the people have an annoying tendency to vote contrary to their interests, as perceived by those commentators who profess to speak for them.

However, the temptation to expand or contract the meaning of democracy to suit the situation is ever-present and often taken by people of all kinds of political persuasions so any sensible conversation requires some agreement over the meaning of terms.

With regards to democracy, the preference would be for the concept to have some relationship to how the term has historically been understood, which is to say it refers to a representative democracy where political leaders are chosen in periodic competitive elections. It would also require an acceptance that even this limited form is not absolute and that states can be more or less democratic, depending on a) the extent to which elections are genuinely competitive b) the extent to which the political leaders produced by these elections actually govern. While there may be disagreement on the margins, surely Iran fails to meet even the most circumscribed definition of the term 'democracy', as it has been understood historically? To argue otherwise is to render the term meaningless - and to suggest it fulfills some more idealised version of the concept, absurd.

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