Two images that hit the media in the last two weeks really creeped me out: Hugo Chavez shutting down an opposition television station in Venezuela and a scene of Shia schoolgirls in Sadr City, a Shia suburb of Baghdad, learning English by rote.
There is a lot to like about Hugo Chavez. He is a socialist, which makes sense in South America’s colonized and polarized economies. He is all for integrating South American interests which, again, makes huge sense in a continent that could mass significant economic and political power if countries cooperated with one another. He is definitely anti-imperialist which simply means that he is willing to stand up for the citizenry’s right to benefit from their own resources. It takes more than a little spinal resolve to stand up to American energy companies (read: the current American government).
The US naturally demonizes Chavez as an enemy of democracy and a destabilizing political force. What that really means is that he’ll assert public control over Venezuela’s oil fields and that democracy there will not be interpreted as the right of a few lucky people to accumulate huge amounts of money using a resource that rightfully belongs to everybody.
So I admire him. But I have always worried about his oppressive tactics. This latest move is just another indication that Chavez’ brand of socialism is more autocratic than democratic.
Over the years, he has taken increasing control of the instruments of political power in Venezuela, particularly by packing the Supreme Court and turning the military into his personal militia. While Chavez’ fears of overthrow and even assassination are founded in reality, his long reach for power indicates that he is a dictator at heart. For all his populist talk, does he believe that his people should be able to determine their own future through democratic political processes? Plainly, no.
And this brings me to the truly icky scene of headscarved little girls standing up en masse and shouting words in English. So many aspects of this image bugged me that it is hard to know where to start. The learning of content by rote is, in itself, anti-democratic. By definition, a democratic education is one that supports a child to make her own decisions. This requires knowledge of content, certainly, but it also requires facility in critical thinking: being able to decide what makes sense, what is true, and what to do about it. Any regime, political or educational, that fails to support individuals to make these decisions is, by definition, undemocratic. And the people who live under such regimes are not, by any definition, free.
The best thing we can say about Chavez in this circumstance is that he doesn’t believe Venezuelans are qualified to discern the truth from a diversity of opinions. The worst thing we can say is that he knows himself to be a dictator. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: he is a military fellow by training and it may be there is no room in his head for dissent and diversity.
There is certainly no room in the Shia classroom for diversity of opinion. There, the price of dissent for a young girl is too horrible to imagine.
Diversity of opinion is a lot harder to allow than diversity of, say, cuisine or clothing. I do not particularly care what people eat or wear. I am offended by headscarves only because of what they represent about the nature and status of women, but I feel no urge to tell women who wear them of my feelings. It is harder for me to stomach the opinion of most of the Shia’s living in Sadr City: that Britain, America, and Israel are responsible for all the trouble in the world, that Americans invaded only to block the coming of the next holy Shia “messiah,” and that the world ought to be united against a common evil enemy: Jews.
See, that is the problem: diversity of opinion is a stablizing force in most of the western world. Where dissent is disallowed, political and economic instablity is sure to follow. But the Western world has no way to address fundamentalist Islam. These folks are happy to blow themselves up. Jail is nothing to them. Neither is the death penalty. How do we negotiate? Are we willing to give them what they want, when what they want is for women to lose their civil rights? For people who do not follow Sharia law to be beheaded in public?
That is the political puzzle for western countries in the next decades, (along with how to stop China and America from poisoning us all).