Air-conditioned Democracy

by on Friday, 29 February 2008 Comments
The debate between Ma Yin-jeou and Hsieh Chang-ting on the Taiwanese TV channels, held February 24, was a non-event. Not only because we did not learn anything new about the program of the two candidates or their personalities, but also because of the format of the debate itself: twenty citizens had videotaped their questions, aired during the debate, and the candidates were informed in advance of the content of these questions. Therefore, it was more like an exam in which cheating is allowed…

We meet here with a paradox: allowing (carefully selected) citizens to air their views and concerns might look like an exercise in direct participation, making the debate more grassroots. And this is partly true, as questions on the environment, the judicial system and other everyday issues were prominent. However, this kind of “YouTube democracy" is obviously very artificial, bordering on manipulation. No surprise is to be expected, there are no experienced journalists for testing the candidates’ reactions - and carefully scripted answers do not teach much to the audience.

A democratic debate is to be based on surprise, direct contact, inventiveness... it does not have to be an exercise in memory power, but rather on character strength and imagination. Indeed, we are not only testing programs, but inner character and capacity for reaction and judgment as well. In that respect, one has to recognize that the American primaries do fulfill such a role – at least they do so this year…

Gadgets such as videotaped questions are not vital to democracy. Actually, nothing would be more dangerous than to go towards a kind of “virtualization” of the democratic process. We need to directly relate to our candidates and to assess them as real men and women whom we can or can’t trust. So far, the presidential campaign in Taiwan has failed the test: media reporting was not helpful. Debates have proven to be even less so.


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