It is a frightening to see pictures of the North Korean masses weeping in public displays of grief over the death of their dear dictator. Reports have noted that extreme expressions of grief are part of Confucian tradition in both North and South Korea, but only in the North is the leader of state considered to be every individual’s father and only in the North does state coercion lie behind everything that happens, even when individuals are sincere in their grief. In North Korea the political culture creates the individual’s psychology.
A South Korean academic, who was my then colleague at the National Endowment for Democracy, said to me there was nothing particularly supportive of democracy in Confucianism but that South Koreans were devoted to their right to vote anyway. That does not seem likely to happen any time soon in North Korea given the overwhelming culture of the cult of personality.
Looking at Iraq’s future Thomas Friedman in the NYT (12/21) wished for Iraq that it would hold together “as an imperfect corrupt democracy” until the real agent of change, the new generation, comes along in “nine months and 21 years”. Friedman is being the optimist here, forgetting that that new generation will have been raised by parents whose culture was shaped by dictatorship and war, with the individual Iraqi’s need to feel secure driving them into sectarian identities. Democracy may take much longer. A vicious military dictatorship in Greece collapsed in 1974. 37 years later Michael Lewis in “Boomerang” describes the “real Greek structure” as “everyman for himself”, with every member of Parliament demonstrably corrupt, making any kind of civic life impossible. Lewis says the Greeks want to recreate a civic life but with the total absence of faith in one another self-reinforcing he doubts they can.
One thing is sure. Taking democratic transitions step by step isn’t the answer. It isn’t a democratic transition if the military has carved out a position beyond the law and elected Parliaments to call the shots, as they are trying to do in Egypt. The only way to start embedding a democratic culture is to start with establishing democratic institutions and hoping that national pride and identity in these institutions will create a new way of seeing yourself and your community. What counts is not whether Egyptians are ready for democracy but whether they will have a shot at getting there. Alas, the military and radical Islam aren’t the only obstacles. Pride in your democratic institutions isn’t going to work to create a democratic culture if your democracy is corrupt. Would that Greece were the only example of corrupt democracies! A leading expert on democracy once said the Kingdom of Tonga was the only example of a benevolent dictatorship – and that was before they held fully democratic elections in 2010. So we have no choice but to stiffen our political will and try.