28 Sep 05
It is said that there three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened. When it comes to the consolidation of a democratic citizenry, one cannot count on the last two groups. Only the members of the first group can make a difference and move themselves from the status of an inhabitant—a simple subject or number in a census—to that of a citizen.
To some, participatory democracy is a pleonasm because they believe that democracy automatically implies participation. Not so. The differences between a participatory democracy and a passive/reluctant one are substantial. The bottom line is that the fabric of a democracy is determined by the quality of participation.
Participation divides. This is why, if taking a nontraditional look at the map of the Earth, instead of mountains, rivers or deserts, one sees countries of citizens and countries of inhabitants. Then there is the denizen. A denizen is defined as “an inhabitant, a resident or a ‘habitue’—a person who regularly frequents a place” or “an alien admitted to residence and to certain rights of citizenship in a country.” So, participation has several levels. Disenfranchisement by weak democratic environments and self-disenfranchisement by lack of interest in being a responsible citizen are the main causes for what political scientists call “democraduras” and even “dictablandas”—mild dictatorships.
What about a genuine dictatorship? Consider the nightmare of being called a citizen during completely undemocratic times. From “Citizen Robespierre!” to “Citizen Tukachevsky!” such an appellative usually meant nothing less than the death penalty. For this reason, there are very few nobler undertakings than restoring the dignity of this title and making it paramount to any democratic structure.
To participate in a democracy, you don’t need to be “somebody.” As Louis D. Brandeis put it, “the most important political office is that of a private citizen.” However, not taking such an office seriously can lead to disaster and, perhaps—most unconscionable—moral demise. It is no wonder that, thinking about the weakness of today’s citizens, a social conscience like Vaclav Havel wrote, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”
One bumper sticker reads: “Do you find education expensive? Try ignorance.” Strikingly true. So many tragic experiences of humanity should finally teach us that the price of dormant citizenry has become too high and the costs of civic illiteracy are already unbearable. To see this planet a safer, happier and more peaceful place, the paradigm of the 21st century must be The Citizen.
Mr Dorin Tudoran is the Editor-in-Chief of Democracy@Large (www.democracyatlarge.org) and the above article is found in Volume 1, No. 4, 2005 of the magazine of which Dr Chee Soon Juan is a member of its Advisory Editorial Board.